February 7, 2014

Affluenza and the American way

Welcome to America, where money buys power and diagnoses are made up.

When Breanna Mitchell’s car was stranded, she and the three good Samaritans helping her out were killed by a young boy who crashed into them with his Ford F-350 pickup, also critically injuring two of the seven teens in his car. Boys will be boys, and sometimes accidents happen, but this time that boy was Ethan Couch, 16, who took a joyride at 70 mph on a rural road while high on Valium and drunk to the point of 0.24 BAC.

When I first read the story, I was saddened both by the avoidable deaths of so many and the terrible prospects for Ethan, who would likely spend much of his adult life in prison, living with the fact that it was entirely his fault. Well, by golly, I sure was glad to learn that although the deaths were irreversible, the extended prison time would never happen. Because guess what? Ethan’s parents are rich!

I’ve always taken pride in the fact that America is one of the few countries in the world where earners (and their kids) are properly rewarded with societal perks commensurate with their financial impact on the economy. Finally, after so many decades of struggle, these perks have finally reached far enough into the justice system to include getting away with manslaughter. At trial, Psychologist G. Dick Miller testified that Couch suffered from “affluenza,” a condition with symptoms including the belief that wealth can buy privilege and the disbelief in a rational link between behavior and consequences. Whether the judge bought the argument or the parents bought the judge, the important thing is that Couch got…probation!

If the idea that wealth can lead someone to believe they can ignore consequences has become a viable legal defense, the rich don’t even have to bribe anyone to get out of a legal pickle. They’re immune from prosecution by virtue of being rich.

With respect to rehabilitation, some wise-crackers might point out that in this special case the issue should be solved by replacing the normal course of mental health treatment with incarceration, since imposing consequences for bad actions (in this case, the manslaughter of four people) would itself constitute a cure for the belief that actions have no consequences. To this suggestion of poetic justice I wittily reply “naaaah.” Let’s send Couch to a private counseling center that costs $450,000 a year instead. I mean, let his father do that (he is planning to)—I don’t have that kind of cash on hand.

I am especially impressed with the nuanced scope of the legal implications of this newly minted “affluenza” defense. As opposed to a lack of mental capacity to accept punishment, neither ignorance of the law nor undue hardship is ever a valid defense. So, there’s no real risk of a wave of icky poor people—err, I think they call themselves “99 percenters” now—stealing bread or something and trying to get away with it by arguing that “starving children” count as a mitigating factor. What’s important is not why you committed a crime. It’s whether you thought you would get in trouble when caught.

That’s why this case hasn’t set a slippery slope in terms of legal precedent. I mean, it may have for the wealthy, but the whole point is that rich people should never go to jail. As one district attorney noted when he decided to charge a hedge fund manager involved in a hit-and-run with a misdemeanor instead of a felony, “felony convictions can have some pretty serious job implications.” Since it’s against state interests for rich people to lose their jobs over small things like felonies, the only reasonable thing to do is to avoid charging them with felonies.

It’s stories like these that incentivize Americans like me to get rich and confirm that we have the highest economic mobility in the world. You know, theoretically. Actually, our mobility ratio is now lower than that of most similar countries, and less than half of Canada’s. But if we start paying attention to little things like facts, we might as well throw in the towel on the American Dream. And who wants to do that?

David Grossman is a first-year in the College.