Texas is such a fun state. Not only do we have the armed idiots patrolling outside a mosque but we’re also home to Ethan Couch, the “affluenza” guy. This is the kid who, in 2013, was given 10 years’ probation for killing four pedestrians, severely hurting two of his passengers and injuring several others while driving drunk. Although he was only 16 at the time, he was driving at three times the legal limit for adult drivers and the alcohol was in addition to the marijuana and Valium already in his system.
Ethan’s attorneys and Dr. Dick Miller, his psychologist, argued that he suffered from “affluenza” (the inability for him to understand the consequences of his actions due to his financial privilege) and needed rehab, not prison. Unfortunately, the judge agreed. So Ethan went off to rehab but is back in the news again because, when he realized he was caught violating the terms of his probation by drinking (there’s a video), he and his mother fled to Mexico. Both were caught, returned to the US and Ethan is now waiting to have his day in adult court.
When I first heard about the case, I was up in arms just like everyone else. I was incensed that a psychologist not only helped Ethan avoid the consequences of his actions but also bolstered his belief that wealth can buy almost anything, most especially our legal system (I tried not to weep while writing that sentence). And while I still believe that probation was the wrong call, a funny thing happened when I researched the case further. I began to see what Dr. Miller was trying to say and I started feeling sorry for Ethan.
The term affluenza comes from a 2005 book, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough. The premise of the book is that having too much leads to psychological distress and causes people to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. There is plenty of research to support this idea and it’s exactly what Dr. Miller was trying to point out. Ethan had way too much and instead of being happy, he was increasingly withdrawn, drunk and out of control. And while materially his life may have been easy, in other ways it was a nightmare.
It seems that Ethan grew up in an extremely wealthy household with an addicted mother and a violent, narcissistic father. He was parentified at a young age (treated like an adult) and discipline was in short supply. He witnessed first-hand how few consequences there were for bad behavior. The police were often called to the Couch home but nothing major ever came of their visits. When Ethan missed too many days of school, his parents just withdrew him. When he was discovered driving alone at the age of 13, it wasn’t reported. When, at the age of 15, Ethan was caught inebriated and urinating in public with a naked 14 year old girl in his truck, he was let go with an alcohol awareness class and community service. And when he subsequently failed to complete either of those requirements, there were minimal repercussions because, let’s face it, fines mean little to those with ample incomes.
None of this suggests that what he did was acceptable nor did he deserve such a light sentence. If anything, by giving Ethan only probation and rehab, the judge merely reinforced what he’s been taught his whole life: money talks. Not only that but, since Ethan hasn’t shown any remorse or responsibility for his role in ruining the lives of so many, then he is likely to do something like that again. That is why getting caught drinking when his probation expressly forbids it was so awful. And none of this takes into account that the lack of meaningful consequences subverted justice for the victims and their families.
So what should this judge have done instead? Putting this emotionally damaged boy in prison doesn’t seem right either. We need a solution that involves atonement, restitution, and healing, three words our flawed legal system has in such short supply. Fortunately, there is an approach that incorporates all of those concepts, one that’s been used successfully by Native American tribes, international organizations and the United Methodist Church. This process is called restorative justice and people who have used it say it’s much more satisfying, healing and productive than traditional methods.
Unlike our present system, restorative justice focuses on the needs of everyone – the victims, the offenders, and the involved community – instead of utilizing punishment and meeting legal requirements. After all, punishment itself isn’t a good tool for learning; it’s only a short-term solution. If we truly want justice, then we need to do something more long-term that promotes healing. Restorative justice does exactly that by allowing victims to take an active role and encouraging offenders to repair the harm they’ve done. It also tries to prevent the offender from doing future harm.
Restorative justice could easily work in this case. Ethan (and ideally his parents) could meet with the victims and their families. The victims could tell their story and talk about how his actions affected them. This could inspire Ethan to develop empathy and take responsibility for his crimes. Then, Ethan and his victims could create together a plan that repairs the harm caused by his transgressions. Restorative justice circles also could be held in the community. Everyone who was negatively affected could discuss their feelings and determine what steps need to be taken to prevent this from ever happening again. Since money has played such a big role in this case, perhaps it could finally be used for good. They could set up funds for medical assistance, harm reduction drug and alcohol programs, parenting classes, counseling and anything else they think will make a difference.
I know that many people just want Ethan to suffer by sending him off to prison. I understand the sentiment but that wouldn’t solve anything, especially not for the victims or the community. They need a different kind of justice, one that would help them heal and move forward. Surely we can all agree that our current system doesn’t do this. It’s mostly about punishment and vengeance instead of atonement and restoration and it isn’t working. If we are to have any hope of living together in peace and harmony, we must figure out what’s best for everyone. As Helen Keller once said, “Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.” And isn’t that what this affluenza case has been about? This tragedy occurred because some people cared only about the welfare of a few and justice certainly hasn’t been served. It’s time for that to end.