In June 2013, Ethan Couch got drunk, drove a vehicle, and slammed that vehicle into two cars. He killed 4 people and injured more. Ethan was 16 years old. He pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter. Prosecutors asked for 20 years in prison. But instead he was sentenced to 10 years of probation to include substantial rehabilitation as well as mental health and addiction treatment. The difference, according to many, was the expert testimony presented by Ethan at his sentencing.
His defense team hired a psychologist who told the court that Ethan suffered from “affluenza.” Affluenza is a poorly-phrased diagnosis that essentially means that Ethan was unable to understand the consequences of his actions like an ordinary person could. He was too insulated from the real-world effects of his actions by virtue of his parents’ leniency and wealth. Basically, he was too rich and had too little oversight from his parents to understand or appreciate the danger created by his actions. Ethan, in the expert and the court’s view, would be better served by a sentence of rehabilitation rather than prison. After his sentence was handed down, outrage—somewhat predictably—ensued.
But we won’t argue that affluenza is not legitimate. It is legitimate to consider the environmental and neurological factors that influence a person’s behavior when fashioning a sentence for that person. In fact, to not consider those factors would be irresponsible, a total disregard of psychological science and what we know about human behavior, and a sure way to guarantee that justice is not served. Those who shut their eyes and yell blindly about personal responsibility miss the point. Personal responsibility has already been taken when we’re talking about an appropriate sentence. A person’s life circumstances are not a defense to a charge. The person is not saying, “I didn’t do this because of my background.” The person is not saying “I should not be charged with anything because of my background.” The person instead is saying, “I did this. I’m sorry. And the reason why I did this is because of my background, so please give me a sentence that allows me to address this part of my background so I do not do this again.”
Understanding why a person acted the way he or she did is the first step towards handing down the right sentence. And the reasons why have everything to do with a person’s background. Affluenza rightfully acknowledges that a person makes decisions based largely on his or her neurological makeup and environmental influence. So we have no beef with affluenza in the abstract.
The beef with “affluenza” is that sentencing evidence like this is only available to people with money. And lots of it. All in, Ethan’s hiring of his lawyers, an expert psychologist, and the costs of his in-patient rehab were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s the cost of dozens of cars. The cost of multiple homes. We’ve seen those commercials where we can “feed a family for only a few dollars a day.” The cost of Ethan’s defense could have fed thousands.
Now, Ethan is not different than any of us in a developmental sense. He—like all of us—was born with a particular genetic makeup, experienced changes in levels of certain hormones, and was subject to environmental influence that all shaped the way he made decisions and acted. All of us—regardless of race, gender, or how rich or poor we are—are the product of that equation.
But the argument that a person’s sentence is fairest when it considers his background doesn’t seem to win for people without money. Public defenders across the United States make these arguments for their clients every single day. Their clients are poor. Many have mental health issues. Many come from broken homes. Many have parents who weren’t around at all, let alone having parents who gave them too much freedom. If there is anyone deserving of leniency or of a more complete understanding of where they came from, it is the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. But public defenders are not mental health experts. They are not psychologists. To the court, their arguments are not definitive proof or evidence to be relied upon. Lawyers can argue, but they cannot diagnose.
So the availability of this kind of mitigation—evidence that shows that a person should be treated with a bit more leniency or that a particular kind of sentence is in fact more fair—is limited to those who can pay for it. And that is not justice. The fundamental right to assistance of counsel is based on the idea that justice is not limited to persons of a particular class. Yet that is exactly what happens in practice. The state will appoint a lawyer if you are too poor to afford one, but that’s it. The state will not hire experts. The state will not provide mental health professionals to dig into a person’s past and identify underlying issues that could be at play. Of course, prosecutors have these resources. The state will hire experts for itself to prosecute you. And that combination—the availability of experts and resources to the state but not to poor people in the system—leads to the disparities in outcome between rich and poor that we see all too frequently.
There is an injustice represented by the Ethan Couch case. But it’s not that a rich kid received leniency. It is that only rich kids are likely to receive leniency. It is that only rich kids are likely to have the court consider in a real way that their decisions and behaviors are a product of the environment in which they were raised. Ethan does have affluenza, if that’s what we want to call it. Just like poor folks have “poverfluenza.” Just like every person has “lifefluenza.” And it’s right to consider that when fashioning a sentence for a person after that person has accepted responsibility for doing a particular thing.
What is wrong, what is unjust, is for courts to reserve this kind of treatment to the rich. To ignore the poor when they ask for the same. Framed that way, a diagnosis of affluenza is fitting not just for Ethan Couch, but for the justice system that sentenced him.