'Affluenza defence': Rich, privileged and unaccountable

By Anthony Zurcher
Editor, Echo Chambers

media captionEthan Couch escaped jail to attend a private $450,000-a year (£275,200) rehabilitation centre that his parents will pay for

Is there a separate justice system in the US for the rich and powerful? It all depends on whether you believe that Ethan Couch would be in jail right now were it not for his wealthy parents and privileged background.

On 15 June, Ethan, 16, was driving with a blood-alcohol level three times above the legal limit. He lost control of his speeding pick-up truck and killed four pedestrians. On Tuesday, he was sentenced to serve in a high-priced California drug rehabilitation centre paid for by the parents, with no jail time and 10 years of probation.

It's the court case that has made the "affluenza defence" a household word, as Ethan's lawyers successfully argued he had a diminished sense of responsibility due to his wealth, pampered childhood, and absentee parenting. Ever since the sentence came down, the media have been rolling in shock and outrage.

The judge "pretty much did what his parents had always done," writes Mike Hashimoto of the Dallas Morning News, "which is let him skate". It's an example of a two-tiered legal system in the US, he wrote, where the rich are treated better than the poor.

"Blame his parents, who may richly deserve it, but bear in mind that this young man will again be driving the same streets as you and yours one day," he writes. "Watch out for big, speeding red pickups."

Other commentators echoed Mr Hashimoto's disgust. Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post writes that with affluenza, one need not fear consequences.

"I can't possibly be guilty of a crime, officer," you point out, if anything comes up. "I have far too much money." This is sound logic. You dangle a few dollar bills out the window, and suddenly it turns out you weren't speeding at all. Most things, money can buy. And for everything else, there's more money.

CNN featured a lawyer who traced the roots of the "affluenza defence" back to the 1979 "Twinkie defence", in which depression (manifested by eating junk food) was used as a mitigating factor in the defence of Dan White, who had shot and killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

"The wrong message has been sent in this case about wealth, power and the penalty for killing others while recklessly driving in an intoxicated state," writes Paul Callan. "The law exists to rehabilitate but also to deter unlawful conduct by the rich as well as the poor."

Slate's Josh Voorhees agrees: "Given the 'affluenza' defence - along with the fact that the teen's parents will be the ones paying for his stay at a $450,000-a-year, in-patient rehab facility near Newport Beach, Calif. - one doesn't have to squint to see what looks an awful lot like a double-standard predicated on the teen's family wealth."

The editors of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram take a different view, however, writing that media criticisms "fail to take into account all the circumstances of the case".

The Texas juvenile justice system "is built not on punishment but on taking account of an offender's age, offering a chance at rehabilitation and a productive life," they write. "This case is tragic for all involved. What seemed to make it worse for some was that the teen's parents are wealthy, and he's led a privileged life."

They conclude that the judge in this case, Jean Boyd, decided that justice was best served by sending Ethan to drug abuse treatment and extended probation.

"None among those who say she was wrong have sat in her chair for 26 years," they write. "In this case, she's earned our trust."

In Texas, judges campaign for office like other politicians. Ms Boyd, however, has decided not to run for re-election.

UPDATE: An Echo Chambers reader points out another interesting opinion piece out of Texas that highlights what a disaster the Texas juvenile justice system is, calling it "a system you'd do anything on earth to keep your own kid out of".

"Because we condemn everybody else's kid to violent prisons, does that mean it's unjust to let any one kid go?" writes Jim Schutze in the Dallas Observer. He argues that the "affluenza defence" is just courtroom bluster: "The real defence is: 'This kid's parents can afford a very expensive whiskey school for him, so why toss him onto the human trash heap of a brutal state prison system? Maybe he can be saved by the whiskey doctors. Why not try?'"

It's probably not an answer that will satisfy the families of the victims and those who place retribution over rehabilitation in the justice system. But the system is what it is. He concludes: "Maybe what the rest of us need to do is work to provide a more dignified and decent system of punishment for all kids."

Is the real tragedy of this case the awfulness of the US juvenile justice system and not the privileges of being wealthy?