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Affluenza is not a decent explanation

Brittany Jordan
Brittany Jordan

Usually, when you kill four people and seriously injure two others in a horrific accident with your blood alcohol level three times the legal limit, you will be staring at the four walls of a jail cell for a very long time. However, in Ethan Couch’s case, he was simply given 10 years probation.

And for no other reason than he is “too wealthy” to know better.

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Last Tuesday, a judge in Texas handed out the incredibly lenient sentence in Couch’s trial, which has sparked a storm of controversy.

Couch’s defense never claimed that he was innocent; they admitted that the 16-year-old and some of his passengers had stolen cases of beer and then proceeded to drive 30 miles an hour over the speed limit, eventually catalyzing a deadly chain of collisions that claimed the lives of four others. Couch plead guilty to all charges and yet is still walking around with little more than a slap on the wrist from the judicial system.

Instead of entering a not guilty plea, the defense stated that Couch suffered from “affluenza;” being raised in an extremely wealthy environment, he had always been given everything that he desired and “had freedoms that no young person should ever have,” according to a press release given by Couch’s attorney. And because of these freedoms, he is somehow incapable of making the connection between behavior and consequences.

I don’t care how wealthy you are or how many privileges you’ve been given, when you kill four people and seriously injure two others while driving under the influence, there had better be extremely severe consequences to that behavior.

The environment that people are raised in has distinct effects on behavior later in life — this has been empirically proven through research. However, those effects can only explain behavior to a point; after a while, choices that individuals make are the sole determiners of outcomes.

Whether you were raised in a household well below the poverty line, or whether you were raised in a household with millions of dollars to spare, you are still expected to know the difference between right and wrong.

It was wrong for that kid to steal cases of beer. It was wrong of him to get in the car. It was wrong for him to end up killing four people because of those choices.

And it is wrong that he still doesn’t understand that he needs to suffer the consequences of poor choices.

Maybe Ethan Couch’s parents didn’t do him any favors by giving him the world and more, and never showing him the link between behavior and outcomes. But the great state of Texas isn’t doing him any favors by continuing the trend.

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If Couch weren’t wealthy, if he were an average middle-class kid, he would be serving at minimum of 20 years in a state prison after pleading guilty to four counts of vehicular homicide. But, because his parents have bank accounts that exceed average proportions, all he has to live with is it being mildly inconvenient for him to get a job (as if he would ever need to work a day in his life), and not being able to cross state lines. Poor, poor Ethan.

At 16, many of us didn’t fully think about consequences. We know that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which deals with long-term planning, isn’t fully developed until the mid-twenties. But if you ask any 16-year-old if it is wrong to drink and drive, they will mumble and nod the affirmative. Ask any 16-year-old if it is wrong to kill four innocent people while driving under the influence, and they’ll give you the same answer.

Teenagers may not have the greatest track record of making great decisions, but they still know the difference between right and wrong. And it is understood that if they make a poor decision, there will be consequences.

Ethan Couch, no matter how wealthy his family is, is still expected to operate under a certain set of rules. His bank account does not exempt him from that.

This “affluenza” defense cannot become commonplace. We cannot let this become a decent explanation for behavior.

If lawyers expect me to believe that a year-long stint in rehab and 10 years probation is going to show this kid that his behavior is unacceptable, they are sorely mistaken. Had this kid not been of racial majority — if he had been Latino American or African American instead of just plain white, or if his family hadn’t been as wealthy as they are — there is no way he would be walking free.

The injustice is not lost on me.

Brittany Jordan is a junior psychology major. Feedback of all varieties can be sent to letters@collegian.com

In Brief:

Being “too wealthy” is not an excuse for killing four people

Affluenza cannot become a decent explanation for behavior

We cannot let the injustice presented in this trial become commonplace

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