Ethan Couch, a sixteen-year-old from Texas who killed four people while driving drunk, was recently sentenced to 10 years of probation, as opposed to jail time. The rationale for this sentence? According to Al Jazeera, the defense argued that Couch was a victim of “affluenza,” a condition that afflicts children who grew up with an affluent lifestyle. Affluenza results in these children rarely, if ever, being held accountable for their actions and therefore failing to face consequences. Naturally, the victims’ families were outraged.
According to WFAA, Couch was found with a 12-ounce can of beer and a 1.75-liter bottle of vodka on Feb. 19, and he received citations for being a minor in possession of alcohol and for consuming alcohol as a minor. In March, his mother paid $423 in court costs, and Couch agreed to take an alcohol awareness class and participate in 12 hours of community service. But Couch’s long line of “misdemeanors” didn’t end there. On June 15, Couch hit a group of people, who were standing by a broken-down car on the side of the road, with a truck containing seven other teenagers. Reportedly, the people he hit were the driver of the disabled vehicle and three good samaritans who stopped to help her. According to Milner, Finn, and Price, juveniles in Texas are punished for crimes and misdemeanors through rehabilitation rather than imprisonment, but for serious crimes, such as intoxication manslaughter, the prosecutor can pursue determinate sentencing, where the juvenile can spend up to 40 years in an adult prison. Apparently, the jury found this too serious a sentence for poor, affluenza-afflicted Couch.
In these courts, celebrities are treated the same as any other citizen. If they break the law, they will face consequences—even though these consequences may be a little less serious than they are for normal people—at least initially, without fail. In a way, the courts like to make an example out of them, showing that even celebrities, powerful and influential people that they are, are not above the law. Lindsay Lohan, according to Huffington Post, was forced to suffer through five jail sentences for drunk driving alone. According to the DMV, possible DUI penalties for the first offense alone, depending on the severity of the case, include immediate license suspension, up to six months in jail, and up to $1,000 in fines. With a successful childhood acting career, even Lohan was arguably a victim of “affluenza,” though the courts did not give her the same courtesy and leniency they gave Couch. Granted, Lohan was tried as an adult, but she still would have had to face harsh consequences for her actions if she’d committed the same crimes as a juvenile.
When the courts give celebrities lighter sentences for serious crimes than they would give normal people, they put celebrities above the law. Given the rationale for Couch’s even lighter sentence, the courts put wealthy people far above even celebrities, even using celebrities’ sentences for serious crimes as precedents. By trying to justify Couch’s actions with the rationale for “affluenza,” the defense and the jury essentially said: “He doesn’t know any better, because wealthy parents spoil their children too much.” It’s hard to tell whether that’s an insult to Texas’ education system—for failing to teach children that killing people, even by accident, is most definitely wrong—or to wealthy parents everywhere, most of whom have children who didn’t have to “suffer” through dilemmas like Couch’s. Those who support Couch’s sentence agree that having wealthy parents is a disease that desperately needs a cure, thus shoving all of the blame to Couch’s parents for their son’s actions. The parents are made to be the sole perpetrators of their son’s utter disregard for people’s lives.
Couch’s sentence would have been at least mildly tolerable if it was for a DUI only. However, he’s also responsible for the death of four people—that’s something that up to two years of intense rehabilitation can’t correct. Soon, Couch will be released back into normal society, but the four people he killed will never return. Their families will be forced to live with the knowledge that somewhere, Couch is living without a care in the world, as if his actions had no repercussions outside his own rehabilitation. If the courts are to follow their own rationale, then Couch’s sentence is merely a byproduct of “affluenza,” as he still faces almost no consequences for his actions.