Affluenza: The Latest Excuse for the Wealthy to do Whatever they Want

Ethan Couch, a teenager in Texas, killed four people but got off because he comes from a rich family and 'didn't know better'

There are many reasons to feel disgust over a judge in a juvenile court in Fort Worth, Texas, sentencing 16-year-old Ethan Couch to 10 years of probation for killing four pedestrians and paralyzing his friend while driving drunk this summer.

Leading up to the tragedy that killed Breanna Mitchell (aged 24), Hollie Boyles (42) and Shelby Boyles (21) and Brian Jennings (43), Couch and a group of friends stole alcohol from a Walmart nearby. At the time of the crash, he was driving a pickup owned by Cleburne Sheet Metal, his father's company. Couch had seven passengers in his truck and a blood-alcohol content of 0.24, three times the legal limit in Texas. He also had valium in his system. Two of his passengers were severely injured, including Sergio Molina, who suffered brain damage that has left him with blinking as his only form of communication.

Couch has never denied that he was driving drunk that night, nor that he killed those people. Instead, the defense argued that Couch grew up in a family that was dysfunctional, in part because of its wealth, and that he deserved therapy, not incarceration.

During the court trial, the defense called psychologist G Dick Miller as main witness. He gave now-infamous testimony. Miller diagnosed Couch as suffering from "affluenza" where his parents' wealth fixed problems in their lives. Miller explained it this way:

The teen never learned to say that you're sorry if you hurt someone. If you hurt someone, you sent him money.

He said that Couch had an emotional age of 12 and that both of Couch's parents failed him. Miller continued:

He never learned that sometimes you don't get your way. He had the cars and he had the money. He had freedoms that no young man would be able to handle.

According to Miller, Couch was left to raise himself in a consequence-free environment. Miller advocated for Couch to receive therapy and cease contact with his parents.

The prosecutors had asked for Couch to receive 20 years in prison. Instead and as a result of the defense's argument, Judge Jean Boyd ordered Couch to a long-term, in-patient facility for therapy, no contact with his parents, and 10-years probation. His attorneys have stated that his parents have offered to pay for him to do his in-patient therapy at a center in Southern California that costs $450,000 a year. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Judge 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."

Ethan Couch, therefore, will spend no time behind bars for killing four people and paralyzing another despite admitting guilt and despite the fact that the diagnosis the defense centered their case around - that of "affluenza" - is not even recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as an actual mental illness. On top of it, it appears that the judge found therapy and probation to be valid because his parents could pay for an expensive center and that he would not have to rely on the state programs. In summary, Couch got off because he comes from a wealthy family.

But there is something else going on here. It matters that Judge Boyd saw Couch as someone that not only could be rehabilitated but whom it was worth it to rehabilitate. The vast majority of kids in the juvenile justice facilities are youth of color, with only 18% of the population described as "anglo" (compare that to the fact that 44% of Texas' population of 26 million is "white" according to the latest census; Couch is white). Only 14% have parents who are still married, 52% need treatment for a capital or seriously violent crime, 48% for mental illness, and 78% for drug and/or alcohol abuse. Other than being wealthy and white, Couch and his crime match the majority of offenders in juvenile justice facilities in Texas.

There is also the point that Judge Boyd believed that Couch's chance of good rehabilitation would be at a wealthy, private, out-of-state facility.This is especially striking in Texas, a state known much more for its ever-growing privatized prison-industrial complex than its compassion for prisoners. Just this year, the Texas legislature slashed the budget of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department by $23m (despite the state having a surplus of funds). There is also an on-going battle over the possible closure of one of its health facilities for mentally ill juvenile offenders, both because of years of violence and abuse as well as being far from treatment providers. The juvenile criminal system is bad enough that one writer at the Dallas Observer asked in response to this case, "Because we condemn everybody else's kid to violent prisons, does that mean it's unjust to let any one kid go?"

Many of these problems in treating the mental health of criminals are mirrored in the adult criminal population in Texas. A 2009 report from the University of Texas showed that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) had a total of 112 facilities, only four of which were for the psychiatric care of the prisoners. According to the TDCJ's 2012 statistical report, of the 152,000 prisoners "on hand", only 3,400 were in SAFPF, or a Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility which has an "intensive six-month therapeutic community program (nine-month program for offenders with special needs)". Of the 2,600 men in those facilities, 42% are white (pdf) despite accounting for just 30% (pdf) of the overall prison population.

And Texas is just a microcosm of a larger problem throughout the US. Private prisons are growing, earning more and more money, and lobbying politicians to call for even more private prisons. Mass incarceration, of which the US is the global leader (pdf), is leading to more and more mentally ill people entering prison. It appears that only criminals like Couch - those who can afford to pay their way through expensive, private rehabilitation and therapy programs - have access to a system that has a chance of working in their favor. If judges know how poor the system is for the mentally ill, as Judge Boyd implies in her remarks regarding Texas, does that mean that they see the wealthy as more likely to be worthy of attempting true rehabilitation? Worse, does that mean even more lenient sentences for the rich?

Judge Boyd has now participated in the very cycle that she wants to break: instead of Couch having to face the tough consequences of the horrific crime he committed, his wealth has once again padded his way. She has reinforced the fact that being very wealthy and throwing money at a problem will allow you to avoid the punishments that your peers who do not have the same resources as you cannot.

Wealth literally bought this kid's way out of prison and into a facility that can help him. The tragedy this case highlights is all the children who cannot do that and will instead enter an ever-growing, ever-problematic US criminal system that will most likely fail them - and us.

© 2023 The Guardian