Drunk-driving teen Ethan Couch plowed into a group of good Samaritans, killed four people, paralyzed a friend and injured at least 11 others, yet got no jail time. The judge who heard testimony that the 16-year-old suffers from an affluent-kid condition dubbed “affluenza” sentenced him to a decade of probation under court monitoring, and a year at a $450,000 coastal alcohol rehab.
Reaction to the Texas teen’s sentence Dec. 10 has been met with a firestorm of incredulity and now there’s a new effort to put Couch behind bars. The teen has not been tried for two counts of intoxication assault that he was also charged with, meaning prosecutors could have another shot at putting him behind bars, according to CBS Dallas.
But as the debate rages on, doubt has been cast about “affluenza” as a legitmate mental problem: Could a high school student go so long unpunished for perilous behavior that he believes there’s no consequence?
“It’s a colloquialism used by yuppies for the risk involved in living in affluence, but I think this sentence sends a very dangerous message,” said Dr. Suniya S. Luthar, professor of clinical and developmental psychology at Columbia University in New York. Luthar has published extensively on the negative impacts of wealth, and has co-authored the just-released paper, “ ‘I Can, Therefore I Must’: Fragility in the Upper-Middle Classes.”
Whether “affluenza” influenced State District Judge Jean Boyd’s verdict is unknown. She’s made no comment after it, although the Fort Worth Star Telegram’s trial coverage reported that Boyd told Couch he, not his parents, are to blame, and told victims’ families that no sentence could ease their loss and pain.
Social media nonetheless blew up with mockery — check #affluenza on Twitter, and Anderson Cooper on cable. Even an academic who studies suburban rich kids scoffed.
Guilty of Four Charges of Alcohol Manslaughter
Boyd’s sentencing after three days of testimony from psychologists and families of victims met with widespread derision and charges that only a privileged person would be granted such leniency. Couch pleaded guilty to four charges of alcohol manslaughter and two counts of alcohol assault for which the prosecution sought a 20-year prison term. His defense team noted that Couch would have been eligible for release after two years and any probation violation would send him to prison for a decade.
But during the sentencing phase, Dr. Greg Miller testified that he’s observed Couch since last summer and concluded he was reckless because he raised himself, and has the maturity of a 12 year old. His testimony served to bolster the “affluenza” case: Couch owned a motorcycle by age 4, and was driving large pickups by age 13. His father was abusive to his mother, and the warring parents bought him things –- including his own mansion -– but failed to discipline him for accelerating offenses. These included police citing him last year for being passed out drunk in a vehicle with an undressed 14-year-old girl. In essence, he was never punished for misdeeds so had no understanding they were wrong. Even experts who support treatment over imprisonment for addicts balked.
Simply put, said Dr. David Sack, a national addiction specialist and CEO of Promises Behavioral Health, “affluenza is junk science.”
While the judge has not been quoted about her sentence of Couch, the media, including Anderson Cooper, reported that she handed down a far harsher sentence to a 14-year-old African American youth –- 10 years in custody –- for striking a 40-year-old man, who lost his balance and suffered fatal injuries from falling. And that apparent disparity between how each teen’s criminality was weighed stoked an enduring viral court story.
“Some of us criminal defense attorneys watched this blow up on the Internet, but we’ve been using ameliorating factors for sentencing a long time; it’s not a groundbreaking thing,” said Bradley Hargis, an Austin defense lawyer who’s been following the case and aftermath. “Affluenza wasn’t a defense presented; it was presented as a mitigating factor about his behavior for purposes of sentencing, just as someone might introduce that they were raised in a violent home. It’s not like he was found not guilty; he pleaded guilty to four counts of delinquent conduct/involuntary manslaughter.”
The police report introduced at trial included security videos at Walmart showing Couch and some of his passengers stealing two cases of beer, which they apparently drank that June 15, 2013. Couch had triple the legal blood-alcohol level and traces of Valium as he drove seven passengers, some riding in the bed of his dad’s Ford truck. He was driving 70 mph in a 40 mph zone and set off a chain of collisions. The truck struck a disabled SUV, whose driver and three roadside good Samaritans were killed. Brian Jennings, 43, Breanna Mitchell, 24, Shelby Boyles, 21, and her mother, Hollie Boyles, 52, perished in the North Texas crash. Two of the at least 12 injured suffered profoundly, one of them a Couch passenger left paralyzed and communicating with blinks.
Academic Luthar said she discovered by accident several years ago that children from two-parent families of means indeed had greater abuse of drugs and alcohol than less affluent youth.
“In the mid-1990s, I was recruiting youth in a prosperous suburban community in the Northeast as a comparison sample for a study of inner-city teens,” Luthar wrote in a Pyschology Today piece headlined, “The Problem With Rich Kids,” published Nov. 4. “To my surprise, the affluent teens turned out to fare significantly more poorly than their counterparts of low socioeconomic status on all indicators of substance use, including hard drugs. I later replicated those findings among 10th-graders in a different Northeast suburb. And other researchers have since corroborated the findings of high alcohol use, binge-drinking and marijuana use among offspring of well-educated, white, high-income, two-parent families.”
Substance abuse is only part of their “problems,” she wrote: “Crime is also widely assumed to be a problem of youth in poverty, but I have found comparable levels of wrongdoing among well-off suburban students and inner-city youth. What does differ are the types of rule-breaking—widespread cheating and random acts of delinquency, such as stealing from parents or peers, are more common among the rich, while inner-city teens are apt to commit crimes related to self-defense, such as carrying a weapon.”
But that doesn’t mean they should skate on accountability for their criminal behavior, Luthar told Elements. “What are laws made for? Why do people go to juvenile detention? It’s partly to say this is what will happen if you get caught. With this verdict, we are saying children of doctors and lawyers: if your parents have the power and money, if you not only have an accident but kill four people, you’ll get bailed out.”
The prosecutor now says he’ll seek jail time for the two counts of alcohol assault for those seriously harmed in the crash. And candidates vying to become the next governor of Texas have dragged the case into the campaign with outraged remarks, agreeing on the need for a change.
Affluenza ‘Not a Mental Disorder’
Robin S. Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco, and author of “Superhero Origins and Abnormal Psychology,” blogged about the case, ridiculing the so-called “affluenza” explanation for Couch’s deadly actions.
“A central puzzle in this situation concerns the concept of diagnosis. Affluenza seems to have been used as a diagnosis to explain his behavior and why he shouldn’t be criminally responsible,” wrote Rosenberg. “The logic seems to be that young people with this affluenza suffer from a psychological deficit or even a developmental disorder….
“But affluenza (even the inaccurate way it was used in this case) is not a mental disorder. It isn’t identified by any mental health professional organization or diagnostic manual…. In the hands of this defense team, it is a fabrication invented to serve a specific purpose. Made-up psychological mumbo jumbo to mitigate responsibility reflects poorly on the mental health profession. Don’t tar the rest of us with this brush! Let’s hope affluenza goes the way of the Twinkie defense.”
The term affluenza was popularized in the late 1990s, the Associated Press reported, “by Jessie O’Neill, the granddaughter of a past president of General Motors, when she wrote the book “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.” It has not been roundly embraced, which might explain why so few had heard of it. (A wry Australian YouTube posted in 2007 about teen affluenza has been watched nearly a million times now.)
Calling it junk science, Dr. Sack of Elements noted: “Nearly every serious crime or criminal has a back story: Parental neglect, abuse, poverty, psychiatric disorder, etc. In general, our society sets the bar very high in favor of personal responsibility. Since this youth pleaded guilty to the charges, there is no question he is responsible in the eyes of the law. The real question is, what is the fairest sentence? The terms of this young man’s probation seem overly accommodating by any standards.”