The Affluenza Defense

In June of 2013, sixteen-year-old driver Ethan Couch swerved off the road while drunk and hit a group of nearby pedestrians, killing four and injuring two others. Ordinarily, this might result in a maximum of twenty years in jail for vehicular manslaughter, but the defense attorney was able to argue this down to ten years of probation and a year of on the grounds that his client was too rich to know better. No, seriously.

According to the attorney, Couch suffered from a condition called ‘affluenza’, which prevented him from understanding “[the] rational link between behavior and consequences”. Because his parents were too rich to guide him properly during adolescence, the attorney argued, Couch was never taught basic human decency and thus could not be expected to understand that getting drunk and killing people was actually a bad thing. And truly, the name ‘affluenza’ is fitting, because lack of parental guidance is a problem faced only by the wealthy. It’s not as though parents in lower-income families might ever not have the time to impart life lessons upon their children, especially not because they might, say, spend most of their time working multiple jobs in order to support said children. No, this excuse is one that only rich kids can claim.

Given the evidence, however, District Judge Jean Boyd saw no choice but to rule against sending Couch to prison because it simply wouldn’t give him the therapy he needed, and that the best way to teach him that his actions have consequences is to eliminate any consequence he might have faced for his actions. And, in fact, Boyd has said would give all families, regardless of their level of income, the option of paying $450,000 out of pocket to send their children to rehab instead of jail as Couch’s parents did. So it’s not like anyone can call her biased or anything.

The ‘affluenza defense’ has, for some reason, caused ire among pretty much everyone who is not themselves fabulously wealthy, calling it another excuse for the rich to avoid responsibility. But can’t they see how hard it is for its sufferers? You keep having to explain to people you can’t be held accountable for things, because other people in the past made the horrendous mistake of listening to you when you told them you can’t be held accountable for things! It’s a vicious cycle, to be sure. Oh, if only there were some way to cure the rich of this horrible affliction and allow them to actually be held responsible for crimes they commit. But how?

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