The most significant cause of “affluenza,” the supposed mental health condition coined during the Ethan Couch trial that asserts that the wealthy are simply too spoiled and entitled to understand that their actions have consequences, is the criminal justice system itself. Ethan Couch, a sixteen-year-old Texan, was able to avoid imprisonment after driving under the influence, killing four people, and injuring several others due to a psychologist’s dubious testimony that the wealth, privilege, and lack of boundaries that he grew up with made him unable to appreciate the consequences of his actions, dubbing this condition, “affluenza.” Dr. Miller, the psychologist who testified on Couch’s behalf, was correct about one thing- the incredibly wealthy do often feel as though their actions are without consequences, because the criminal justice system very rarely punishes them, no matter how heinous their crimes may be.
I grew up in a very wealthy suburb of a major city. Just to give you a feel for the community, if you happened upon a teenager driving a Mercedes, it was assumed that she probably owned it, parties and family vacations often cost tens of thousands of dollars, and the “poor” folks, who were routinely pitied, typically had multi-story homes and pools in their backyards. Through the outreach work I was involved in, my fellow volunteers and I uncovered a hidden epidemic of abuse in this picturesque community, and polled many middle and high school-age youth to uncover the extent of it and who the perpetrators were. It turned out that the perpetrators, most of whom were either a victim’s parent, other close relative, family friend, or dating partner, were, largely, some of the most powerful, revered members of the community. What enraged us more than anything else was that a significant percentage of these very brave young people had reported their abusers to the police, and, to the best of my knowledge, there wasn’t a single investigation conducted. These young survivors were treated as a bother to the local authorities and, in many cases, accused of fabricating their accounts of abuse. Knowing many of the perpetrators personally, I can attest to their “suffering” from what Dr. Miller describes as “affluenza,” as both they and their victims realized that they were, essentially, immune to intervention by the criminal justice system. To be fair, there were a handful of wonderful police officers in this region. Despite the eventual lack of action on my behalf, I personally considered one police officer in particular to be a true hero for his efforts to help me out of a dangerous situation. However, there was always a widespread understanding that if an influential, well-respected individual raped you, you didn’t dare contact the authorities.
In the case of Ethan Couch, this young man was brought home by the police a year prior to killing four people after he was discovered in a truck with a young woman who was unconscious and undressed. While it would certainly not be appropriate to just assume that he sexually assaulted her or intended to do so, it does stand to reason that a young man who would be this reckless with other people’s lives, most likely, did not find her already undressed and put her in his truck to protect her from whatever dangers might have been lurking in the night. During the trial, significant attention was drawn to the fact that Couch’s parents did not punish him following this incident. My question is, why did the police feel that it was appropriate to simply drop a young man in, at best, clearly suspicious circumstances at home with no repercussions whatsoever? An ethical criminal justice system should be the greatest equalizer in society- whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, from a loving home or a dysfunctional one, if you rape or kill, you go to prison. The fact that this is not the case in a country that has long prided itself on hard-earned equality is the true cause of “affluenza.”
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