NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Earlier this month, a Texas court sentenced 16-year-old Ethan Couch to 10 years' probation for hitting and killing four people with his car. Couch had a blood alcohol level of .24 at the time of the accident, three times the legal limit. The teenager faced a maximum of 20 years in prison but received no actual jail time from Judge Jean Boyd due to a condition the defense called "affluenza."
According to the defense, Couch needs treatment for his problem rather than imprisonment. Boyd ultimately agreed, sentencing him to probation in a controversial decision.
Justice works differently for the rich. Anyone really curious needs only to look at the consequences of carrying a bag of weed for poor, black kids vs. Hollywood movie stars.
One goes to prison, the other goes to a party.
The problem is Boyd's decision probably wasn't about Couch's money. In fact it almost certainly wasn't, if only for the fact that any judge who wanted to let the rich kid walk would have made up at least some excuse to paper over the fact. She wouldn't have openly accepted "affluenza" as an excuse and put her seal on it.
In reality, Boyd is probably a judge who was more moved by the kid in her courtroom than the cash. Faced with a teenage defendant, it looks like Boyd wanted to find a way to give him a second chance regardless of his parents' money.
That may have been what Boyd meant, but what she said only makes sense if it was all about the money. Cut through all the flim flam about bad parents and a permissive childhood, because if parental mistakes forgive felonies, we might as well shut down the court system right now. In a court of law, affluenza only works if it diagnoses wealth.
And it draws ugly parallels to what happens to the poor and minority defendants who sit in that same courtroom.
When we give Judge Boyd the benefit of the doubt, her ruling falls apart. Boyd found that Couch had grown up devoid of consequences. His parents hadn't enforced any rules, so he never learned to respect them and couldn't function in proper society. Psychiatrists cited examples in court, including when Couch got a ticket for being found passed out in a pickup truck with a naked girl. His parents did nothing.
The problem is, none of this has anything to do with wealth or Couch's circumstances individually. Sure, his parents could afford the truck, but teenagers don't need money to make drunken mistakes in a parking lot. It doesn't take money to raise a child in a consequence free environment, just permissive parents. Couch's defense could work for anyone who can claim that their parents phoned it in.
That's where this defense falls apart, almost instantly. Catchy title and wealthy defendants aside, this case boiled down to parents who didn't enforce the rules. But every parent decides which rules he or she will and won't enforce, and every child grows up in some version of his own reality. Do the children of Cool Dads now get a pass on underage drinking because their parents let them have beer in the basement? What about the hippy's daughter caught with drugs? What should the courts do when she argues that her parents never enforced boundaries with chemical experimentation?
Boyd's ruling also ignores the question of when it becomes a child's obligation to begin thinking for himself. By 16 we allow teenagers a certain measure of responsibility. They have seen enough of the world to begin forming their own opinions. To give Couch a pass because of his parents cuts him off from any sense of agency. It says that he never had any responsibility himself to grow up.
The slap in the face, however, is to poor and working parents, the ones unable to be there for their children since doing so would mean skipping a rent payment. Where Church argued that his parents' money allowed him to live consequence free, for these parents consequences are often a luxury they can't afford. It's hard to enforce the rules when you have a 12 hour shift at Wal-Mart.
For them the courts are more than willing to help teach consequences. We imprison poor and minority children in record numbers in this country, in the perverse belief that, somehow, raising a generation of child felons will lead to happy adults grateful for the lessons the system taught.
By the logic of Boyd's ruling, however, those teenagers should begin seeing much lighter sentences. They, too, should be able to argue their circumstances as an excuse to the law, explaining away criminal behavior because nobody ever taught them right from wrong. Maybe the courts would even have to recognize "desperation" as a legitimate legal defense.
That is not, however, how the system works. Quite the opposite, in fact. We're so afraid of these kids, of anyone who looks young, poor and "urban" that lawmakers are busy creating extraordinary new ways to punish them. In New York, state legislators have even begun to legislate fictitious crimes with brutal sentences, proposing 25 years in prison for teenagers who play or even watch the Knockout Game. Needless to say, the face of the knockout game is black, urban and lower class.
They should argue that their parents never taught them not to hit.
Boyd's ruling leaves us with a mess of contradictions and poor precedent. Every day we imprison children who are absolutely the product of their environment without ever considering that defense. The only difference between Couch and them is that he had the money to back his arguments up.
In the end, it's the futility of our experiment with mass incarceration that almost certainly speaks to the logic behind Judge Boyd's ruling. Even juvenile prison is a grueling, destructive place, and few people come back better for it. Most return considerably worse. With Couch's successful affluenza defense, we're not looking at a judge who decided to let the rich kid run free. We're looking at someone who saw four lives ruined and decided not to add a fifth. Boyd may have seen something in Couch that could be saved, and wanted to give it a chance.
She should have just said so.
--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.