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‘Affluenza’ argument for teen’s probation in 4 deaths is bogus: Mitchell

Updated: January 18, 2014 6:26AM

The uproar over the shocking sentence given a 16-year-old who killed four people in a drunken car crash puts a spotlight on biases in the nation’s criminal justice system.

Jean Boyd, a district judge in Tarrant County, Texas, sentenced Ethan Couch to rehabilitation treatment and 10 years probation, apparently buying a defense lawyer’s argument that Couch is a victim of “affluenza.” The teen was facing 20 years behind bars.

However, a psychologist successfully argued that Couch was a victim of “wealth” and “privilege” and that his “parents failed to set limits on his behavior.”

So, instead of Couch being locked up for an extended period with the rest of the state’s youth offenders, the boy’s wealthy parents will pay $450,000 annually for him to be treated at a posh rehabilitation center in southern California.

Condemnation of the judge’s leniency has ricocheted across the country.

Last week, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told reporters he was looking into the case to see whether the judge’s ruling could be appealed.

Usually, when a public outcry erupts over a sentencing, it involves allegations that a white defendant got away with killing a black person. In this case, all the victims were white.

Critics also often point to draconian drug laws that put a disproportionate number of African-American defendants behind bars on lengthy sentences as proof that our criminal justice is out of whack.

Last year, professors at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the University of Chicago and Harvard University released a study that purports to confirm racial bias in criminal sentencing.

“We find evidence of significant inter-judge disparity in the racial gap in incarceration rates, providing support for the model where at least some judges treat defendants differently based on their race,” noted David S. Abrams, one of the co-authors of the study.

This disparity became so blatant, defense attorneys and judges joined with civil rights organizations to push for a repeal of harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws related to crack cocaine.

Still, there are those people who argue the reason more black criminals are behind bars for a longer period than their white counterparts is because more black people are committing serious crimes.

The Couch case challenges the simplicity of that argument.

There’s little doubt that had Couch been a poor youth from the inner-city area of any major city, the teen would have felt the full weight of the law.

First of all, he would have been charged with stealing from the Walmart, where he and his friends allegedly stole cases of beer. He also would have been charged with underage drinking, and driving under the influence since his blood alcohol level was three times over the state’s legal limit when the fatal crash occurred.

This was not a case of “spoiled” or “bratty” behavior.

Couch’s criminal conduct resulted in the deaths of four innocent people who were unfortunate enough to be in his destructive path.

The teen may not have deliberately driven his pick-up truck into his victims, but his actions were every bit as reckless as the 16-year-old who fires a gun on the street and hits an innocent bystander.

But these teens aren’t being cut any slack.

Juvenile detention centers across the country are filled with African-American youth convicted of reckless gun crimes, and we don’t argue that these teens should get probation because they are victims of poor parenting, poverty and neglect.

Judges sentence these young black criminals to lengthy jail sentences with little concern about whether or not they will be rehabilitated.

The “affluenza” defense is a bogus argument that should have not been considered. Still, it may serve to open some eyes.

Because if justice were truly blind, the compassion Judge Boyd showed for Couch would not be an aberration.


Twitter: @MaryMitchellCST

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