February 06, 2014

“Affluenza,” Privilege and Justice

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Last year, Ethan Couch, 16, drove drunk and killed four people and severely injured two others in Texas. The case made national news when during the sentencing face his legal team claimed that he “suffered” from “affluenza”. In other words, the teen got everything he wanted and did not learn that his actions had consequences because his parents were lenient. The judge allowed him to go to a treatment facility, funded by his parents to the tune of $450,000 a year, instead of prison.

Affluenza is not a new term—when I was in high school in the 1980s my school district sent pamphlets to parents warning them of the dangers of giving kids too much—and it is not actually a psychiatric diagnosis.

But the idea that rules for the wealthy and their children are different than for everyone else is a very real concern that has generated a lot of public anger. A California lawmaker has even proposed a bill that would make such a defense illegal in the state, even though it is unclear whether anyone has ever used such a defense in California. Plus, the Texas teen actually plead guilty; the affluenza argument came when it was time for sentencing.

This case has gotten so much attention because it is particularly egregious: four people died after an irresponsible teen stole beer and drove 70 MPH in a 40 MPH zone. Apparently, his parents also had several past traffic incidents, and one report claims that he told a passenger “I’m Ethan Couch, I’ll get you out of this” immediately after the accident.   A comment like this makes it seem as if he had no concern about the injuries he just caused, but was only worried about himself and his friends.

This case has sparked controversy because it appears that a rich, spoiled kid literally got away with murder, calling attention to the relationship between wealth, privilege and justice. While this case made headlines in part for its novelty, socioeconomic status regularly plays a role in the justice system.

This case might never have made news if the term “affluenza” hadn’t been used in court. But wealth regularly helps defendants in court—and often helps people avoid arrest and prosecution in the first place. The defense said out loud what had previously been an open secret.

So how might the scales of justice regularly tip towards people with more resources?

  • Breaking the law in private spaces—rather than on streets or in public parks, means that someone with more access to private space might avoid detection if, say, they use illegal drugs or if minors drink alcohol.
  • The more arrests in low-income neighborhoods, the more they are patrolled, leading to more arrests and greater surveillance. Arrests for minor offenses (such as drinking in public, loitering, and disorderly conduct) are less likely to take place if people have access to private spaces on larger tracts of land and thus less apt to disturb neighbors.
  • If a person is politically connected or well-known in a community, a law enforcement officer might be pressured to release someone involved in minor law breaking to avoid any retribution to their department, or be more likely to release a juvenile to their parents’ custody (we often presume—often incorrectly— that more affluent families have better parenting skills than poor families). 
  • If arrested, a person with resources can hire a high-quality defense attorney (perhaps even a family friend) who will be able to devote a great deal of time and energy towards mounting a vigorous defense. Public defenders often have a large caseload and lack the time and the resources to provide as thorough of a defense. Because of time constraints, public defenders might be more inclined to plea bargain for a lighter sentence for their client rather than go to trial.
  • Juries might be more sympathetic to wealthier defendants. Their defense can argue that these defendants are pillars of their community, and they might even provide evidence of recent philanthropy or volunteer work they participated in to make them appear more “redeemable” than other, less economically advantaged defendants.

The case of Ethan Couch provided a high-profile reminder that the rules of justice are occasionally applied differently to people from wealthy backgrounds, angering the public. The victims’ families have filed multi-million dollar civil lawsuits against his family to cover medical costs and time lost from work and other damages.

And while the outrage centered on Couch being allowed to enter a treatment facility instead of detention, perhaps the real injustice here is that treatment and rehabilitation is seldom an option for lower income individuals.


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It’s sad that the rules of justice are occasionally applied differently by the condition social of every each other
of us.The richer they are the less chances we have to get justice.

Thank you for posting this piece: I was not aware of this terrible tragedy, and once again, another situation where (simply), money talks.

Atlanta, Ga

y heart goes out the victim's family, I couldn't imagine if this was my child and what I would do in this situation.

I know if my friends and I were placed in the same scenario we would all likely be in prison, serving long sentences. We would not be able to afford to use the word “affluenza” in our defense. It is very worrisome that money is becoming so powerful in our country not only in this case but in politics as well. As far as I can tell, either the public is oblivious or has turned a blind eye to cases like this.

Lady Justice is blindfolded for this reason. The blindfold represents her objectivity. In the article, Sternheimer explains how the judicial system allows the wealthy the ability to hire more qualified defense teams while the average citizen can’t afford more than a public defendant. Sternheimer even goes on to make the argument that even juries can be swayed into going easy on a wealthy person due to the belief that they are more than likely “pillars of the community” - that they do more good through philanthropy and therefore a balance already exists. While a judge or jury may believe this, no matter how wealthy or philanthropic a person is, this should not excuse them from taking the right of life away from another individual. Reading this case proves the blindfold of justice has been slipped over the eyes of our society.

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