Privileged justice

The justice system is usually harder on the poor than on the rich—if only for the fact that the latter can afford a better defense than the former—but in Texas, it has been shown that money can also serve as an excuse for committing serious crimes and not paying the consequences.

This is the case of Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old who last June 15, stole alcohol from a store with some friends and later, driving drunk, killed four people who were standing next to parked cars. The sentence for Couch—who had already had alcohol-related problems with the authorities—was 10 years’ probation and inpatient therapy at a rehabilitation center in Newport Beach, California, at a cost of $450,000 per year to be paid by his parents.

Judge Jean Boyd accepted the defense’s argument that the environment of wealth in which Couch was raised and the poor upbringing he received from his parents caused “affluenza,”the malady whereby young people from wealthy families fail to consider the consequences of their actions and believe thathaving money entitles them to do as they please.

The judge’s ruling clearly confirmed that impression. She sentenced him to join other young people like him, rich and capricious, at the cost of a fortune to his parents, rather than 20 years in prison for killing four people.

What would have happened if the young man were Latino or African-American, as misguided as Couch about the impact of his actions and with a poor upbringingbecause of his parents? Would the “poverty” argument have kept him out of prison?

Hardly. What is certain is that they would not have had the sympathy of a Texas judge—as Couch did—in a state whose justice system is characterized by its harshness toward the poor and minorities, in a place where they execute even the mentally ill.

Couch’s case is an aberration and even extreme in its unfairness, but it is an example of the distortion of values and the double standard that arise in a society that is increasingly divided by the extreme gap in wealth. This difference apparently allows one justice system for the rich and another for the poor.