You may know the term “affluenza” from the news stories about Ethan Couch, but the term actually dates back to the 1950s. It means the inability to comprehend the consequences of one’s actions thanks to financial privilege and influence.
It may have been in the 1950s when the term entered the public lexicon, but the phenomenon goes back even further. We’ve seen examples of affluenza throughout history. Feudal Japan had Kiri-suite gomen, an act that allowed samurai to kill a low ranking person, or a commoner, in retaliation for insulting the samurai’s honor. While strict rules governed the act of Kiri-suite gomen, and the samurai would be expected to answer for his actions, sentencing was often 20 days of house arrest, or a loss of position. Even with punishment in place for taking a life, the rich and powerful samurai could kill a “lesser” person for a perceived slight, and apart from being mildly inconvenienced for awhile – if at all – could then simply carry on with his life.
Let’s fast-forward to America, 2013. Ethan Couch is 16 years old. He has a restricted driver’s license. This doesn’t stop him from getting behind the wheel while intoxicated with drugs and alcohol. He collides with an SUV, killing four people and injuring more. One of Couch’s passengers is paralyzed. Couch is indicted on four counts of intoxication manslaughter and everyone can agree that he made a stupid, senseless decision to get behind the wheel of the that truck in his drunken state.
Or can they? Couch’s lawyers fight hard for him, saying he can’t be held accountable for his actions. The poor kid has affluenza, they say. His parents never taught him right from wrong. The family wealth led him to believe he could do what he wanted, when he wanted. So, how could he possibly be held responsible for killing and seriously injuring those people? If only he weren’t so rich! Then he would understand the consequences.
Couch received 10 years of probation and was ordered to attend rehab. He was later imprisoned after failing to report to his probation officer. Ultimately, he killed four people and served two years.
Sadly, this story is not a one-off occurrence. We also have the example of Brock Turner, the white, athletic Stanford student who raped an unconscious woman. While Turner’s powerful legal team scrambled to put together a defense that showed the rapist in a glowing light (and his father famously outraged the Internet when he said his son had already paid a steep price for “20 minutes of action”), the victim penned a heartbreaking impact statement that included this phrase: “I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name.”
Brock’s lawyer later (incorrectly) claimed she probably didn’t write the letter herself, and the judge handed Turner a six-month sentence because he had such a “positive character” as evidenced by references, like the one given by his father. “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” said the judge. (Isn’t that what prison sentences are supposedto do?)
The plea of affluenza is not reserved for the big charges, like murder and rape. As the Guardian noted in an article by Sadhbh Walshe, “If you’ve ever been arrested for a misdemeanor offense, like jumping a turnstile, smoking a joint, or protesting a cause in a way the authorities would rather you didn’t, then you’ll know that your best chance of avoiding jail has less to do with what you’ve done than if you can make bail. It’s no secret that the best-quality justice is generally reserved for those who can afford to pay for it.”
More than 80 percent of non-felony charges with bail set at $1,000 or less see the offender going to jail – for a minor offense – simply because they cannot post bail.
The Sentencing Project, an organization that has labored for a “fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system for 30 years,” sums up the problem of affluenza with the blunt truth: “The United States, in effect, operates two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and minorities.”
Affluenza. Is it a growing problem in our justice system? Perhaps it’s not growing (it’s always been there), but it is certainly becoming more visible. Today, victims who have suffered at the hands of criminals like Ethan Couch and Brock Turner speak out online, bringing to light a very lopsided justice system. Meanwhile, those visiting loved ones in jail, where families are torn apart because bail couldn’t be raised for something as simple as smoking a joint, rail against the system and call for reform.
All around the world and from antiquity we have seen examples where the haves got away with more – including murder – while the have-nots were penalized for being different or poor. While this affluenza persists today, there is small (tiny, minuscule) comfort in the fact that while the judicial system may not be fair, victims can – and do – take their perpetrator to social “court” online where reputations are ruined and lives can be shattered. It’s not true justice, but when the legal system fails its most vulnerable victims, the ability to call someone out online is the only comfort these people have.
Christopher Zoukis, author of Federal Prison Handbook, Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts, is the Marketing Director of Brandon Sample PLC. He can be found online at https://sentencing.net, https://compassionaterelease.com, and https://clemency.com.