Ethan Couch is a sixteen year old kid from Texas. He was also, this past week, sentenced to ten years of probation for killing four people in a drunk driving accident. In addition to said probation, Couch’s parents have agreed to send him to therapy at a facility in Newport, Rhode Island, reportedly at the cost of $450,000 a year, where he will have no contact with them. The coverage, expectedly, has been defined by outrage. (I suggest you explore said coverage for yourself; I am hesitant to endorse any particular articles about the event due to their respective biases.) After all, he killed four people, and his only punishment seems to be a paid vacation in Newport, and a lengthy time in which he would, essentially, simply be punished more severely for committing a crime than he would be otherwise. It reeks of unfairness, to both the families of the victims, and our national audience. Yet I think it’s important that we examine why exactly we think it is right to be outraged– if in fact that is what we think.
We find this situation particularly unfair for a number of reasons. Firstly, as I said before, it appears as though he is essentially escaping punishment, and, for better or worse, our society believes strongly that those who do wrong should face commensurate punishment (though I would argue that the punishments we dole out for crimes often far outweigh the crimes themselves). Secondly, he appears to be escaping that punishment because he is rich, and, depending on your perspective, white. Not only did the now infamous psychologist G. Dick Miller quasi-diagnose him with “affluenza”– a psychological disposition in which one does not understand consequences because of the lack of limits one’s parents sets for him or her– his parents are also paying for his therapy out of their own pocket. This, in a nutshell, looks like everything that so many Americans complain about. He is buying his freedom; he is facing different treatment because of his and his parents’ status. It’s un-egalitarian, undemocratic. And as much as our political discourse (and thinking) has slowly given rise to a publicly acceptable kind of classism, we are still fundamentally a group that believes in equality.
Yet, I think there’s an important question of rehabilitation at the heart of the situation. It is no secret that our criminal justice system is not the world’s most effective. We have high rates of incarceration, recidivism, offender unemployment, and costs per capita of imprisonment. Our prison system creates career criminals, and deprives us of the valuable citizens that some criminal offenders could someday become. And for all our talk of punishment, this a sentiment that is not entirely uncommon. Divorcing ourselves from the situation for a moment, our question often becomes “why ruin another life?” What good comes from the incarceration of someone we deem not to be a chronic public danger? Is his life already past redemption, past usefulness?
Well, as a matter of fact, there is some good. As Eric Boyles, father to victim Shelby Boyles and husband to victim Holly Boyles, said in an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN, this sentence derailed his healing process. He feels as though the same injustice has been done to him again. This, in turn, raises yet another interesting problem. Was the sentence upsetting because we have grown up learning that bad deeds should be punished, or was it upsetting because vengeance is an integral part of the human mind, of the human healing process? Fundamentally, it comes down to what we consider to be the purpose of the criminal justice system itself. Is it solely meant to create the most societally beneficial outcome? Is it meant to incorporate the feelings of the families of the victims? Does the former necessarily require the latter? I would say yes, that our vision of justice is holistic, that we look for solutions that will help the victims feel better, that we look for solutions that will benefit society at large to equal degree. Really, then, it is an issue of finding the right balance.
Perhaps the biggest problem that we collectively have with his sentence is the actual facility to which he will be going. If rehabilitation were systematic, if it were legislated, and democratic, we might find his punishment more acceptable. Instead, though, he will be receiving therapy at an annual cost of about 10 middle class families’ incomes combined. There is something almost comical in the idea that, to learn to overcome his privileges as a rich person, he will spend his time exclusively with other rich kids and their doctors. Other kids don’t get this sentence. And while that may perhaps be a bigger condemnation of our system’s inability to provide for our young people, it is certainly still a valid critique. Right now, this doesn’t look like real rehabilitation. It looks like a get out of jail free card.
And yet, amidst all of this criticism of “affluenza,” there is a slight hint of hypocrisy, at least amongst our more liberal voices. Ethan Crouch’s narrative is “rich kid gets off because he allegedly isn’t responsible for the circumstances of his background and rearing.” The narrative, however, when, say, a young man is convicted of a gang-related shooting is “kid from struggling neighborhood has background ignored, receives no help in rehabilitating himself, gets book thrown at him.” I should say before I continue further that I agree with the latter sentiment, that we are often not responsible for the circumstances of our lives, that we need to be compassionate, and help people become better citizens. That, however, is not the point. Rather, the point is the apparent dissonance between these two positions. On the one hand, we think a person’s background should not help them get off, and on the other, we do. But why is that? Should wealth automatically equate to a proper childhood, to a proper living environment? Does one’s struggles need to be material for them to be legitimate? Certainly Ethan Couch’s fundamental position is far better than others’, but that does not mean his individual position is. And fundamentally, that is what we must consider, if we are to take this approach– the individual position. To do anything else would be a form of classism. It would be a societally deleterious exercise, and one that we should avoid. We can criticize structural inequities; we can oppose the powers and privileges of the rich. We cannot, however, begin to deprive anyone, rich or poor, of the legitimacy of personal difficulties solely based on the nature of their background. Again, we must return to the individual.
Granted, this approach, this idea that we should place some responsibility on circumstance and show leniency as a result, does not absolve the individual of responsibility for his or her actions. While we may say that bad public schools, lack of employment opportunities, and institutional racism may contribute to gang participation, we do not then hold back in prosecuting gang crimes. This is still an individualistic society, and we still tend to believe that individuals can make their own choices and accept the consequences of those choices.
So what are we to do, then– accept this as an act of mercy, as an attempt to salvage a young life? Should we see this as a miscarriage of justice, as an example of the negative consequences of our growing class divides and wealth concentration? I don’t have an answer. I would, however, like to think that this tragedy can serve as a call for a more equitable, constructive system of justice for the entirety of our society, regardless of socio-economic position, race, creed, or gender. Equality before institutions is a fundamental bedrock of democratic society. Without it, we cannot call ourselves democratic, egalitarian– any of it. If this is compassion, let all have it. If this is a miscarriage of justice, let none have it. But provide the same to all. I suppose that’s all we can ask.
The image comes courtesy of vulawoffice.com