A 16-year-old who went on a drunken night of debauchery that ended with four innocent bystanders dead and two of his friends seriously injured got probation for his crimes. A judge decided that because the boy was rich, he didn’t know he would get in trouble.

Ethan Couch admitted to all of his crimes. He and seven of his friends stole alcohol from a Walmart, got wasted and piled into Couch’s pick-up truck. After speeding along at 70 miles an hour in a 40 mph speed limit zone, he struck and killed four pedestrians who were standing by their cars on the side of the road. Two of his friends, who were riding in the bed of his truck, were thrown from the vehicle and critically injured. One remains in the hospital with severe brain damage. Nine other bystanders were also injured. At the time of the wreck, Couch’s blood alcohol level was four times the legal limit.

How a person goes from all that damage and winds up with 10 years of probation is an odd story.

Prosecutors were hoping to send Couch to jail for up to 20 years, but the defense made the case for why Couch should be let go with just an ankle bracelet and a court order to go to rehab for a while. Their main line of argument was that Couch was actually a victim too. His parents enjoyed a life of wealth and privilege and due to that never bothered to teach Couch that actions had consequences, an expert brought in to defend Couch dubbed the condition “affluenza.”

He said Couch got whatever he wanted. As an example, Miller said Couch’s parents gave no punishment after police ticketed the then-15-year-old when he was found in a parked pickup with a passed out, undressed 14-year-old girl.

Miller also pointed out that Couch was allowed to drive at 13. He said the teen was emotionally flat and needed years of therapy. At the time of the fatal wreck, Couch had a blood alcohol content of .24, said Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson. It is illegal for a minor to drive with any amount of alcohol in his or her system. [source]

It’s telling that the judge thought that another example of how awful Couch is was another example of why he shouldn’t get punished. Possibly raping someone in your truck at age 15 doesn’t normally lend itself to supporting a person’s good character.

“Affluenza” represents another, if particularly audacious, way the rich are not held to the same standards as the poor. If Couch was an inner-city kid or a minority he would certainly be serving time in jail.

A startling fact is that over half of African American juveniles who get convicted of crimes, end up going to an adult jail.

African American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison. According to the  Sentencing Project, even though African American juvenile youth are about 16 percent of the youth population, 37 percent of their cases are moved to criminal court and 58 percent of African American youth are sent to adult prisons. [source]

The ironic thing about Couch’s case is that the slap on the wrist did more to prove to him that he was invincible than any run ins with the law before. Here is a judge telling him that because he is rich and sheltered he can play his crimes on his parents or the “system” – the very system that is now letting him off. Who else but a rich kid could expect to get an ankle bracelet for killing four people?

Not James Stewart.

A working class kid from Denver, Stewart was different from Ethan Couch in almost every way except he too made the terrible decision to drive drunk one night.

The 17-year-old from Denver had committed a terrible act: while driving drunk, he slammed into another vehicle head on and killed its driver. Initially placed with other juvenile offenders, he was moved to the county lockup after the district attorney charged him as an adult. [source]

After fighting with his cellmate and being sent to isolation, Stewart was found dead, having hanged himself with a bedsheet. He was still just 17 years old. Unlike Couch, he was made to suffer the full consequences of his actions, perhaps much more so.

If Couch were to get into another car while intoxicated and kill another person, would he be sent to jail then? After all, he has all the reason to think that his actions have no consequences and are therefore not really consequences at all. “Affluenza” isn’t a disease, it’s an immunity.

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