Being born rich is a big advantage in life, and always was. Money buys private tuition, access to power and people, spacious homes, opportunities to travel, fine food, and time to do what you like. And yesterday in Texas, being rich also got Ethan Couch out of jail.
Couch, a wealthy 16-year-old who killed four people and paralyzed another by crashing into them while intoxicated, has escaped jail after a psychologist claimed he was suffering from affluenza — that his wealth had made him disassociate actions from consequences.
The concept of affluenza was popularized in the late 1990s by Jessie O'Neill, the granddaughter of a former president of General Motors, in her book The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence. It describes a condition in which children from richer families develop a sense of entitlement, behave irresponsibly, and make excuses for poor behavior.
Couch faced 20 years in prison after plowing into four pedestrians while three times over the drunk-driving limit last June. He was driving with seven passengers in his Ford F-350 truck. They had reportedly stolen two cases of beer from a store.
He instead got 10 years probation — alongside a recommendation for treatment instead of punishment.
This is obviously ridiculous. Whether a drunk driver grew up affluent or poor is totally irrelevant; he or she should still bear responsibility.
Indeed, giving Couch probation affords him an opportunity to drink and drive again — and put more lives at risk. If someone with another condition — say, schizophrenia — had killed four people, they wouldn't be out on probation; they would be forcibly treated. If affluenza is a real mental illness, he should be required to get treatment.
Furthermore, lots of people have been jailed — sometimes for many years — for much less. Over 3,000 Americans are serving life without parole for non-violent crimes, having killed or injured no one. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are imprisoned for victimless crimes like the possession of marijuana.
This is illustrated by this graph that shows that while violent crime in America has fallen considerably, incarceration rates have actually risen:
The psychologist who argued Couch was suffering from affluenza told Anderson Cooper last night: "I wish I hadn't used that term. Everyone seems to have hooked onto it. We used to call these people spoiled brats.”