An American teenager who popularised the ‘affluenza defence’ has been arrested for breaching his probation.
In 2013, 16-year-old Ethan Couch was sentenced to 10 years’ probation after killing four people in a drink driving incident. During his sentencing hearing, Couch’s defence team successfully argued that their client was so wealthy he could not tell right from wrong, and therefore should be given a lighter sentence.
The conditions of his probation included staying drug and alcohol free for a period of in-patient therapy, but Couch failed to comply – fleeing to Mexico with his mother after a video emerged on social media showing him blatantly breaching his conditions.
Couch was later deported from Mexico to the US, where he was moved to an adult prison and ultimately sentenced to consecutive prison terms of 180 days for each of the four people killed in 2013, a total of two years.
The Affluenza Defence
Couch’s 2013 case caused outrage amongst victims’ groups and the broader community.
He admitted driving with Valium in his system and a blood-alcohol concentration three times the legal limit, resulting in a collision which killed the four occupants of his car. But during sentencing, Couch’s psychologist G Dick Miller testified he was suffering from “affluenza” at the time, a condition resulting from the inability of his wealthy parents to instil basic moral principles into him.
Miller gave evidence that, “The teen never learned to say that you’re sorry if you hurt someone. If you hurt someone, you sent him money.” He assessed Couch’s emotional age at 12, adding that because of his consequence-free environment, “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.”
Judge Jean Boyd accepted this as a mitigating factor (one which reduces penalty); ultimately rejecting the prosecutor’s request for 20 years in prison, instead giving Couch a stint in therapy without parental contact, along with 10 years’ probation.
The term “affluenza” originates from a 1990s book titled, “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence”, in which psychologist Dr Gary Buffone hypothesises that a sense of entitlement by wealthy families creates a lack of responsibility, along with a tendency to make excuses for poor behaviour, and often leads to drugs and alcohol problems.
After Couch’s case, Dr Buffone made it clear that he never imagined his work would be used to diminish legal responsibility for criminal acts. “The simple term would be spoiled brat,” Buffone said. “The defence is laughable, the disposition is horrifying … not only haven’t the parents set any consequences, but it’s being reinforced by the judge’s actions.”
Affluenza is not defined as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which is generally used as the basis of all psychiatric diagnoses. At the time of Couch’s sentence, there was no scientific research into the condition, with most reports being anecdotal accounts about spoiled rich kids.
Dr Suniya Luthar has conducted extensive research into the effects of affluence in suburban communities, affirming that many wealthy children indeed have a distorted view of the consequences of poor behaviour.
Luthar’s research suggests that 20% of upper middle-class adolescents at the prestigious Columbia University in New York believe their parents would come to their rescue for poor conduct, including that which might otherwise lead to expulsion.
Luthar criticises Judge Boyd for acting on “junk science” and “pop psychology”. She goes on to discuss the inequalities of the American criminal justice system, “What is the likelihood if this was an African-American, inner-city kid that grew up in a violent neighbourhood to a single mother who is addicted to crack and he was caught two or three times … that the judge would excuse his behaviour and let him off because of how he was raised?”.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says prison sentences imposed on black males in the federal system are nearly 20% longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes, with similar criminal backgrounds.
It says black people are 20 times more likely to be sentenced to life without the opportunity for parole for nonviolent crimes, such as drug offences than white people.
In terms of Couch’s other mitigating factors, his situation is far from rare. Of juvenile offenders in Texas, 48% suffer from a mental illness, and 78% show drug and/or alcohol abuse.
Many are relieved Couch will now be spending some time behind bars, but many believe two years is not long enough.