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Buying Injustice

Buying Injustice

A recent decision in a Texas court has justice circles, including social, economic and criminal, ablaze with discussion. Last week, Juvenile Judge Jean Boyd ruled on the case of 16-year-old Ethan Couch. His charges stemmed from a June 2013 drunk driving crash in which nine people were injured and four were killed. Couch took his father’s Ford F350, stole beer from Wal-mart and then smashed into the four victims as they stood by the side of the road due to a broken down vehicle. Couch was doing around 70mph in a 40mph zone and had a blood alcohol level of 0.24 which is three times the legal limit for an adult. The reason everyone is up in arms over this case is the defense’s argument and the judge’s sentence based on the argument. The judge sentenced Couch to 10 years of probation and a one year stay at a private, one-on-one rehabilitation facility in California. The rehab stint had to be fully funded by Couch’s family. This sentence was in direct opposition to the prosecution’s request he spend the next 20 years in prison. The defense that granted him such leniency? Couch suffered from affluenza.


The term affluenza was first made popular in a 1997 PBS documentary of the same name. Affluenza was defined as a “painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” According to John de Graff, a documentary co-producer the term was meant as social criticism not psychiatry.  He reports being “appalled” by the judge’s decision. De Graff tells PBS’s Here and Now that he believes Couch did have affluenza in the social criticism sense but that it should not have been a defense for his behavior. The defense attorney and his star expert didn’t agree.

The Defense

Defense-called psychologist Dr. G. Dick Miller took the stand during the case to explain how affluenza played a role in the Couch case and specifically how it made Couch not responsible for his behavior. He explained that Couch was a product of a very wealthy family where there was little boundary setting and he never learned that there were consequences for his behavior. He stated Couch learned from a very young age that wealth bought privilege. He gave examples of how Couch had been allowed to drive since he was 13 and at age 15 he received no punishment from his parents when he was ticketed by law enforcement after being found in a parked vehicle with a passed out, nude 14-year-old girl.

Even before the verdict, many experts weighed in on the coined affliction since the PBS documentary and several books on the topic have been written, including The Affluenza Antidote: How Wealthy Families Can Raise Grounded Children in an Age of Apathy and Entitlement by James V. D’Amico. He stated that affluenza essentially is the lack of setting boundaries, giving children anything they want and children raising themselves as their career-obsessed parents pursue more and more wealth.  “They behaved like spoiled brats-materialistic, apathetic, lazy and entitled,” he said of the children affected by affluenza. “Entire generations are now growing up fully absorbed with their own wants and oblivious to the greater needs around them. This self-centeredness masks a profound unhappiness and emptiness that money cannot ease or fill.” The parents had little time or tough love and end up uncertain of what to do when their children begin to misbehave, including participating in alcohol and substance use and criminal behavior. Often the parents choose to ignore the problems. Due to being bailed out, the kids learn they can buy their way out of punishment. He states these children are unable to work hard, associate with people of high character or contribute to society. The competitiveness that comes from their culture of always getting ahead prevents them from feeling the connectiveness of friendship.

So, essentially, a child living in a wealth family does not see the connection between their actions and a negative consequence. This inability to know right from wrong, under our current justice system, is a valid defense for culpability as was shown in the Couch case.

Cost of Rehab

The second part of Couch’s sentence requires he attend rehabilitation. His defense argued to the court that he would not get the therapy he needed if he went into the justice system. It comes as no surprise to those of us in the justice profession that rehabilitation services in state-run facilities are often under-funded and under-staffed. This has been a concern for many years. It becomes even more concerning when a wealthy family points out the system’s failures and has the ability to offer a different solution for their child- a $450,000 a year solution. “I don’t believe going to the penitentiary was the best thing for him or the State of Texas,” stated Dr. Miller. I can’t disagree that rehabilitation outside the justice system can be much more effective. What is appalling is that our system’s rehabilitation has apparently been good enough for defendants without money. Also, too often we hear stories of how these country club rehabilitation facilities do little to change the behaviors of their high-end clientele. According to Miller, Couch already has a flat affect and will need years of therapy to overcome his affluenza. Can the facility in California truly meet that need? Time will tell. 

Urbanemia or Inner-City Affluenza

If Couch’s culpability can be reduced due to his upbringing and his social environment, why can’t the same be said for the other high-risk group of juveniles-inner-city minorities? We could call this affliction-urbanemia. Children raised in poverty, often by single mothers who work more than one job can argue many of the same effects as those suffering from affluenza. Lack of boundaries, always trying to get ahead and an uncertain parent who is too overwhelmed or exhausted to punish is very similar to the experience of wealthy children. I doubt that a similar case involving a young, poor, black child would have the same outcome. Not only would the family be unable to hire a high-price lawyer who could call a witness like Miller, but they would be unable to offer a family-funded rehabilitation facility as an alternative for juvenile hall. The child would most likely be heading to prison instead of a juvenile anyway.

Although Judge Boyd stated that Couch had “diminished culpability and great prospects for reform,” the only thing at the heart of this case is money. Without money, the outcome would have been different and Couch would be facing actual consequences for killing four innocent people. Currently, the family faces civil lawsuits from the victim’s families, as well as, the prosecution’s pushing of the judge to sentence Couch on the two remaining counts of intoxication assault charges that he pled guilty to. These charges could send Couch to juvenile for three years. Wouldn’t that be the final eye-rolling travesty of this case? If you have money, you can kill four people and get probation but if you assault someone you get 3 years. Justice should not be bought and if parents are not raising their children to be responsible, moral and la-abiding adults regardless of their social and economic standing, the parents need to be held accountable. At the same time, children need to learn there are consequences for behavior, both good and bad and those consequences should not have a dollar value.