This week the media has its journalist panties up in a bunch over the “Affluenza defense.” Really at this point journalist panties should come pre-bunched to save everyone time. Here is some of the uproar:
To the families of the victims, Ethan Couch was a killer on the road, a drunken teenage driver who caused a crash that left four people dead. To the defense, the youth is himself a victim — of “affluenza,” according to one psychologist — the product of wealthy, privileged parents who never set limits for the boy.
And more outrage!
A 16-year-old boy who drunkenly killed four people got probation this week because the judge — with no apparent irony — agreed with the boy’s defense that he was a victim of “affluenza,” whose parents taught him wealth and privilege shield consequences. The teen had faced up to twenty years in prison.
The problem with the affluenza uproar is that the media is finding causation where there is none. Yes, the defense did post some sort of argument that Couch acted out because his rich parents never set boundaries, and thus he suffered from “affluenza.” But criminal defense attorneys say a lot of stupid shit. To make the leap that the stupid shit worked simply based on the verdict is foolish.
O.J.’s lawyer said, “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit,” but that doesn’t mean you can fill 3 hours of television screaming that a killer got off because of a rhyme scheme.
One could forgive the media for running around saying that the teenager received the light sentence because of his “no boundaries equals no responsibility” defense, if it were not for the fact that the judge explicitly stated that she did not buy into it:
In delivering the sentence, Boyd told the victims’ families in the packed courtroom that there was nothing she could do that would lessen their pain. And she told the teen that he, not his parents, is responsible for his actions.
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.
The judge made it clear that she felt Couch was responsible for his actions regardless of his upbringing. She just felt he needed intensive therapy which the state and its taxpayers were not able to provide. Now the parents are footing the bill for the $450,000 a year treatment center and Couch is on probation for 10 years – which is kind of a long time.
There are some dumb comparisons out there which criticize the judge for previously sentencing a black 14 year old to prison time, the comparisons stating, “But we discovered the same judge sent a 14-year-old African-American boy to prison last year for killing just one person after punching him to the ground.”
But like it or not (I personally like it), the American criminal justice system relies heavily on intent in sentencing. When you punch someone, you are intending to cause that person physical harm. When you drink and drive, you are intending on having a good time and getting from one place to another. To say one is analogous to the other, even if they may have the same effects, is seriously misguided. Drinking and driving is dumb and reckless, but it is not malicious.
The comparison is only a race issue to people who would be more upset at a white person who drunkenly tripped and spilled their beer than they would be at a sober minority who slapped the beer out of their hand. Racial disparity in sentencing exists, but let’s not compare stupid apples to violent oranges.
But this case does raise interesting issues. A tragedy occurred and people died, but what is really the best case scenario going forward?Should prosecutors be seeking 20 year sentences against 16 year old kids for drunk driving? Is the prison time and treatment a good use of tax dollars? And perhaps most interestingly, should we give out different sentences to those who can afford better rehabilitation?
The answers to these questions depend on your view of the role of the justice system, whether it should be punitive or rehabilitative,, and whether it should value equality or results. The one answer we do have is that “affluenza” had nothing to do with the sentencing. The judge has spoken, and it did not.
But it doesn’t matter because “affluenza” is a literally a buzzword. It stirs up emotion and ignites controversy. We get to hear a CNN anchor shout, “AFFLUENZA – IS IT REAL?” in a skeptical baritone voice. Of course affluenza isn’t real – it’s not a thing. It’s the stupid made up word a professional witness coined while he was eating fruit loops.
If not for the newly branded term, the defense would have walked up and said, “Couch was a spoiled rich kid, acting like a spoiled rich kid, because he’s a spoiled rich kid,” and we would have all nodded in agreement. But we would also all agree that rich kids need to be punished when they act poorly, and the judge felt similarly. She was just trying to create the best sentence she could in light of a terrible situation.
The only reason this became a national story was because of a phrase uttered by an ignored professional witness. “Affluenza” creates debate and anger, which drives ratings and ad dollars. So the media will continue to misreport the story – at least until they can make more money misreporting something else.