Affluenza: The Latest Excuse for the Wealthy to Do Whatever They Want
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There are many reasons to feel disgust over a judge in a juvenile court in Fort Worth, Texas, sentencing 16-year-old Ethan Couch to 10 years of probation for killing four pedestrians and paralyzing his friend while driving drunk this summer.
Leading up to the tragedy that killed Breanna Mitchell (aged 24), Hollie Boyles (42) and Shelby Boyles (21) and Brian Jennings (43), Couch and a group of friends stole alcohol from a Walmart nearby. At the time of the crash, he was driving a pickup owned by Cleburne Sheet Metal, his father's company. Couch had seven passengers in his truck and a blood-alcohol content of 0.24, three times the legal limit in Texas. He also had valium in his system. Two of his passengers were severely injured, including Sergio Molina, who suffered brain damage that has left him with blinking as his only form of communication.
Couch has never denied that he was driving drunk that night, nor that he killed those people. Instead, the defense argued that Couch grew up in a family that was dysfunctional, in part because of its wealth, and that he deserved therapy, not incarceration.
During the court trial, the defense called psychologist G Dick Miller as main witness. He gave now-infamous testimony. Miller diagnosed Couch as suffering from "affluenza" where his parents' wealth fixed problems in their lives. Miller explained it this way:
The teen never learned to say that you're sorry if you hurt someone. If you hurt someone, you sent him money.
He said that Couch had an emotional age of 12 and that both of Couch's parents failed him. Miller continued:
He never learned that sometimes you don't get your way. He had the cars and he had the money. He had freedoms that no young man would be able to handle.
According to Miller, Couch was left to raise himself in a consequence-free environment. Miller advocated for Couch to receive therapy and cease contact with his parents.
The prosecutors had asked for Couch to receive 20 years in prison. Instead and as a result of the defense's argument, Judge Jean Boyd ordered Couch to a long-term, in-patient facility for therapy, no contact with his parents, and 10-years probation. His attorneys have stated that his parents have offered to pay for him to do his in-patient therapy at a center in Southern California that costs $450,000 a year. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Judge Boyd said that "she is familiar with programs available in the Texas juvenile justice system and is aware that he might not get the kind of intensive therapy in a state-run program that he could receive at the California facility suggested by his attorneys. Boyd said she had sentenced other teens to state programs but they never actually got into those programs."
Ethan Couch, therefore, will spend no time behind bars for killing four people and paralyzing another despite admitting guilt and despite the fact that the diagnosis the defense centered their case around – that of "affluenza" – is not even recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as an actual mental illness. On top of it, it appears that the judge found therapy and probation to be valid because his parents could pay for an expensive center and that he would not have to rely on the state programs. In summary, Couch got off because he comes from a wealthy family.
But there is something else going on here. It matters that Judge Boyd saw Couch as someone that not only could be rehabilitated but whom it was worth it to rehabilitate. The vast majority of kids in the juvenile justice facilities are youth of color, with only 18% of the population described as "anglo" (compare that to the fact that 44% of Texas' population of 26 million is "white" according to the latest census; Couch is white). Only 14% have parents who are still married, 52% need treatment for a capital or seriously violent crime, 48% for mental illness, and 78% for drug and/or alcohol abuse. Other than being wealthy and white, Couch and his crime match the majority of offenders in juvenile justice facilities in Texas.