A couple of weeks ago, I read about the story of Ethan Couch—or rather the story of Brian Jennings, Shelby and Hollie Boyles, and Breanna Mitchell, whose families are suffering unimaginable heartbreak because of what judge Jean Boyd accepted as affluenza. Affluenza is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “a psychological malaise supposedly affecting young people, symptoms of which include a lack of motivation, feelings of guilt, and a sense of isolation”. Defense attorneys argued that he had been given so many freedoms that kids are never meant to have, that it obscured his judgment and led him to believe that money could buy him out of any uncomfortable or inconvenient situation.
And unfortunately, the judicial system has confirmed that belief.
As I read the news, my anger was overcome by the sadness I felt for the families of the victims. I can imagine the verdict was like pouring acid into a gaping wound. Killing their family members wasn’t the only law he broke that night, and as his punishment, he’ll be sent to a posh Newport Beach counseling center with chef-prepared meals and more people telling him how special he is, with daddio picking up the $450,000 tab.
How’s your blood pressure?
The punishment enables the crime
When I was younger, there were a few times where I was grounded to my room for a significant amount of time. It was almost torture because there was absolutely nothing for me to do there. I don’t remember ever having toys and I spent all of my free time playing video games in the living room or being outside. But I had friends who loved it because there was a TV and a Nintendo and Legos and on and on. Sure, they were limited in what they could do, but they had all they needed to have fun. So I’m sure you can guess whether or not they even cared about what they had done to put them there.
The same goes for this case. Honestly, I do feel bad for him. His parents did a horrible job teaching him to value anything other himself. But putting him in a “safe” environment will do little to purge that from his system. Once he is back home, it wouldn’t be surprising to me if the changes he experiences are only minor.
Agents to act and not to be acted upon
One of the interesting things I’ve noticed about us humans is that out of all the different species of animal, insect or whatever else on this earth, we are the only ones with the ability to reason. In other words, we are agents to act and not to be acted upon. We are certainly enticed by different things, and there are certain things that we do that can hinder that ability to reason, but that ability always remains intact. Ethan Couch may not have been taught that what he was doing was wrong (stealing his father’s company truck, stealing beer from Walmart, driving 70 mph in a 40 mph zone), but the fact of the matter is that he chose to do those things. I can’t imagine that his parents taught him that those choices were the right ones given the circumstances.
To disregard his ability to choose for himself is to animalize him; to assume he acts on instinct rather than reason, and that is OK. But what do we do to pit-bulls who maul people, even if they are doing it out of instinct? We certainly don’t send them to a counseling center for misunderstood puppies.
Those actions may not be a problem in the Couch residence, but they shouldn’t be a good enough excuse for what he did. By comparison, we wouldn’t expect our judicial system to condone a man beating his wife, even if he comes from a place where such actions go unpunished.
Is povertenza next?
To be honest, I’m not a fan of a lot of the anti-wealthy agendas out there. I don’t agree with increasing taxes for the rich (although I do agree with closing loopholes), and I think that there is an element of self-righteousness among those who vilify the wealthy, although I wouldn’t venture to paint everyone with that brush. But in this case, the unfairness caused by the wealth gap is undeniable. Would we be able to reasonably expect povertenza to become a legitimate defense?
Want drives a lot of our actions in this life. Many of the criminals in our prisons come from low-income backgrounds where opportunity is perceived from a different lens. I was amazed a few months ago when I stopped at a gas station in Kansas City and was greeted inside by bulletproof glass and a burly police officer guarding the bathroom. Having grown up in a middle-class suburban area, I had only seen stuff like that in movies. And why is it that we only see stuff like that in low-income areas? Is there something to do with their upbringing that causes them to not know any better? Do their children grow up having to deal with things that no child should have to deal with, and it obscures their judgment? The argument could hold, but the gap comes when we think about who would stick their neck out to fight for that defense. After all, there probably isn’t a lot of money in defending the poor.
Technicality over practicality
I don’t know about you, but I’ve already seen this case several times before. The crime and the people are always different, but the travesty is the same: technicalities are favored over sensibility. Heaven forbid we punish someone for his heinous acts because he may have psychological issues; or because of a tiny sliver of ambiguous evidence against a background of overwhelmingly damning proof of guilt. In many cases, our laws have become so technical that they offer more protection to the guilty than they do the innocent.
So that brings me to the question, is affluenza part of our future? And even more importantly, will we become desensitized to it?