Ethan Couch mowed down four people while driving a vehicle with a blood alcohol level of three times the legal limit. It is a terrible enough case before we add in the fact that he was only 16 years old at the time he killed the victims.
During the case proceedings, Couch's defense team called Psychologist G. Dick Miller. Dr. Miller provided his opinion that Couch suffered from affluenza, which is a lifestyle where wealth brings privilege without consequences for poor behavior. We called this type of person a spoiled brat growing up before naming every type of behavior became vogue.
The point at sentencing that Dr. Miller made was that Couch needed structure and guidance because he did not receive it at home and the only way to obtain this was through a rehabilitative sentence that avoided incarceration. The judge decided the appropriate punishment was probation for ten years, including a stint in a rehab facility where his parents would pay the $450,000 a year bill. He avoided any prison for the offense, but the court may revisit the issue if Couch violates probation.
Victims' families are crying out for justice. Dr. Miller took a term that means children of wealth tend to overspend, be irresponsible, and do not believe in consequences for their actions and stretched it to explain the need for rehabilitation, not punishment or deterrence.
I see this defense every day in the courtroom. Only, it is usually from an African-American male standing at the defense table with their assigned attorney. The defense attorney explains to the court that the defendant grew up with a drug-addicted mother and an imprisoned father, thereby left to the streets to teach him about life. The defendant is in need of structure, discipline, and should not be punished because he truly did not know any better. He argues that incarceration will only create another person dependent on social services for the rest of their life and asks for a sentence fashioned to help the defendant become a productive member of society. The story is so frequent that one has to wonder whether a judge becomes immune to it.
Couch's defense transformed a life of privilege, wealth, and parents into a disadvantage, creating the same circumstances as minority growing up without parents in the gang and drug-infested portions of an inner city.
There are only distinctions between Couch and the defendants just described without any differences. I wonder if Couch would have received the same sentence if the defense was forced to argue that he grew up without a father to instill obedience in him because his father was in prison and thus needed to learn consequences to his actions.
Would the judge have had the same sympathy if a public defender was making the argument? An inner city youth?
Where you fall on the appropriateness of the sentence probably depends on your view of crime. Should a person be punished for a crime and a message sent to deter future actors from doing the same thing? Or should a sentence be rehabilitative, with the goal of transforming the defendant into a productive member of society? This question has been argued for generations and will continue to be. (See a discussion of that here).
The sad truth is that four people are dead who were just at the side of the road trying to help a woman change a tire because of the intentional choices of a 16 year old kid that led to his recklessness. No matter your view on punishment, could you ever imagine watching the person responsible for four deaths, including your loved one, walk out the door into fresh air to catch a flight to Southern California to start rehab?