'Affluenza' not an excuse

It is hard to live in America and not notice that there is a great disparity between the rich and poor. According to the 2012 edition of the State of Working America from the Economic Policy Institute, household income, adjusted for inflation, has grown 12 times more for the top 1 percent than for the middle 20 percent, and 24 times more than the bottom 20 percent.

Income inequality reared its ugly head most recently in a tragic case out of Texas last week. Ethan Couch, 16, was sentenced to more than 10-years probation after killing four people in a drunk-driving accident this past June.

At the time of the accident, he had a blood alcohol content of .24 from the alcohol he’d stolen earlier, and had THC, Valium and muscle relaxants in his system. He was doing 70 mph in a 40 mph zone while swerving back and forth across both lanes before striking the car on the side of the road that subsequently left four people dead.

The two passengers in Ethan’s car, which was his parent’s Ford F-350, were ejected. One suffered from multiple broken bones, while the other has been paralyzed to the point that he must now use his eyes to communicate.

What makes the case even more heinous is the defense his lawyers used to keep him from facing a 20-year prison sentence – “affluenza,” a term not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association.

During the trial, a psychologist called by the defense said Couch suffered from “affluenza.” The psychologist said the dysfunctional relationship and wealth of Couch’s parents had stunted his development into a person who couldn’t understand consequences.

The victims’ families are, understandably, not happy with the outcome.

“That kid killed four people and crippled my little brother and doesn’t even have to serve one year? If he were poor like us, he would’ve gotten 10 years, I bet,” said the brother of Couch’s paralyzed friend in an interview with The Dallas Morning News.

What many people are focusing on are Couch’s parents, who have agreed to pay $450,000 a year for Couch’s addiction rehabilitation in Newport Beach, Calif. This has led many to believe that if a similar situation was to arise with a family who couldn’t afford such luxurious treatments, that they wouldn’t be offered such leniency.

The justice system already attacks the poor. Plea deals are often struck in exchange for trials because prosecutors know many can’t afford a costly and lengthy trial. According to a study from US National Library of Medicine, “this has led to systematic disenfranchisement of the poor and of people of color.”

The case raises many questions that need answered by our judicial system. At what point does one get treatment while another receives prison? Shouldn’t both be offered the same opportunities to right their wrongs? Ultimately, Ethan Couch and his “affluenza,” which many incarcerated individuals would have loved to be inflicted with, only prove that with enough money and lawyers, anything is possible.

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