An affluent Keller teen who killed four people while driving drunk and stoned on Valium has become the latest object of outrage. Ethan Couch, 16 at the time of the crash, was handed 10 years of probation, which will include a stint at a pricey rehab paid for by his parents. Much of the indignation has been focused on the defense expert's absurd "affluenza" testimony. In short, it was argued that Couch's upbringing had molded a complete stranger to consequence.
The news prompted a rash of editorials, and expressions of outrage from both gubernatorial candidates.
It's debatable what influence this defense actually had on the judge. More likely, it was his parents' resources, their ability to access quality treatment for their son at no cost to the state, that produced a sentence that seems so incongruous to the death he caused.
Upon closer examination, though, probation for intoxication manslaughter is actually pretty common. The Dallas Morning News did some number crunching back in 2010 and found that some 40 percent of adults convicted of the same crime never did any time. Couch, we must remember, is a child in the eyes of the law, and the aims of the juvenile justice system, given the brain development of your average teen, are generally more rehabilitative than punitive.
It isn't Couch's sentence that should be most troubling. It's the disparity it reveals. Jessica Dixon Weaver, assistant professor at the SMU Dedman School of Law, spent a decade representing juvenile defendants. She saw firsthand two justice systems -- one for those with money and one for those without it.
"The sentence does not surprise me -- generally if the defense counsel can come up with a decent alternative to the prosecution's offer, and it is one where the parents will foot the bill rather than the state, there is either an agreement between the state and defense on the case disposition or the judge opts for the alternative," Weaver tells Unfair Park. "Middle class and wealthy children always have more options in juvenile court because their parents carry health insurance that may cover treatment [if it involves alcohol, drugs, or psychological issues] or they can pay out of pocket.
"Poor children are dependent on the options available to them based on contracts the state has with certain facilities [and] treatment centers, as well as limited space at those facilities."
Budget cuts at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department have cut down on the number of spots available at treatment facilities for juvenile offenders.
Said one juvenile defense attorney who asked not to be named: "Do you want to send him back into the community with no treatment or get 100 percent chance of him getting treatment? Do you want them back fixed or do you want them back broken?"
The answers are yes and fixed. But rehabilitation may depend on whether the juvenile comes from means. According to this study out of Stanford, it may also depend on your race. Published in the journal PloS ONE, it found that black juveniles received significantly harsher sentences than their white counterparts.
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