Outrage was fairly widespread when a judge apparently agreed with a defense attorney’s argument that a 16 year-old who stole beer from a Wal-Mart store, washed some Valium tablets down with it, then proceeded to drive drunk and recklessly, killing 4 people (and leaving 2 others paralyzed) in the process, actually suffered from a psychological “disorder” (labeled by some psychobabbling mental health professionals as “affluenza”) and should therefore be afforded the opportunity to be rehabilitated and hopefully grow a conscience in treatment instead of being otherwise punished for his crimes. The judge’s decision in the Ethan Couch case left many wondering whether being “spoiled rotten” will become the new defense for delinquent juveniles hoping to evade accountability for their actions.
Ethan Couch has lived the life of privilege for most of his young years, and he’s been breaking some major rules and getting into trouble since his early teens. He’s also been getting away with it, developing a huge sense of entitlement in the process. Juvenile delinquency is nothing new, of course. But the Couch case is is particularly troubling because many see it as evidence of a serious double standard within the justice system when it comes to wealthy vs. poor individuals. Critics point out that every day in our country, troubled teens from underprivileged backgrounds are tried as adults and slapped with lengthy prison terms for similar (or even lesser) kinds of conduct. Such criticism indeed has great merit. But another, less talked about yet highly important issue is whether the imposed “consequence” (Couch was sentenced to 10 years probation including a 2-year stint in a treatment program) even begins to adequately serve the purpose of possibly reforming this young man’s attitudes and behavior. Spending two years in a posh mountainside retreat-style “rehab” center (the almost half million dollar cost for which the teen’s parents must pay) is most probably not going to accomplish that. The treatment model at such facilities is simply not sufficiently specialized to adequately address this teen’s significant character impairments. And despite the fact that the particular center chosen for Ethan’s rehab will cost his voraciously “enabling” parents a lot of money, the “consequence” they’re experiencing is also inadequate. Any way you look at it, this case seems like a travesty of justice.
Because of how we punish in America (for more information on punishment, popular misconceptions about it, and how it can indeed be effective when implemented properly, see my articles on the subject as well pages 249-251 in my book Character Disturbance), the prison sentences we impose on serious lawbreakers serve less to send a deterring “message” to them and other would-be offenders and more to temporarily reduce the opportunity they have to freely victimize the general public by keeping them sequestered. Still, anyone would have to wonder what kind of message Couch’s sentence sends to to him, to his and other parents, and to all the other would-be delinquents out there, privileged or not. Right now, the message seems to be that you can repeatedly violate the law (Ethan’s had multiple run-ins with the law and multiple episodes of drunkenness, had been driving since age 13 and was, astonishingly enough, just in court 3 months prior to this tragic event) and in your recklessness take the lives of 4 people (and seriously paralyze two others), if you just happen to be the “victim” of your parents’ failure to teach you any better. Moreover, the only prices you or your family will have to pay is a warning about what might happen if you don’t seriously consider changing your ways and the cost of treatment for your “illness.” What a message to send! And given Ethan’s history, and the little heed he’s paid to the various “messages” and warnings (including formal warnings from the court) he’s been sent in the past, it’s quite likely this latest message has also fallen on deaf ears.
I’m old enough to remember when parents were not only held fully accountable for the actions of minors under their care but also took this responsibility very seriously. As a result, they made sure not only to teach their children right from wrong, but to hold them accountable for their actions, lest the entire family pay a steep price both financially and with respect to public standing and personal honor. Today, everyone is a “victim” of some sort. Even a youngster who steals, repeatedly illegally drinks, engages in many reckless and illegal acts, and does so with full knowledge of the risks, is somehow the “victim” of the parents who spoiled him rotten and taught him that there’s always a way to buy yourself out of trouble. I’m also old enough to remember when justice was meted out with a certain degree of “blindness” and dispassion. You broke the law, and you paid the price. It was that simple. Nothing is that simple anymore.
It’s never been good public policy to adjudicate by sentiment as opposed to reason, but I think it’s self-evident that sentiment played far too big a role in the sentence Couch received (and I’m not merely talking about the probation vs. hard sentence or prison vs. rehabilitation issues here because there were lots of options available to the judge for imposing consequences that might have actually fairly punished the youngster as well as truly facilitated his rehabilitation). For if the judge were really so concerned that this youngster’s problems directly stemmed from him never having learned to “link bad behavior with significant consequences,” the sentence she imposed does little to “correct” that irresponsibility-fostering perception. To me, that’s the proof that sentiment – not reason – played the greater role in the judge’s decision. And it’s the absence of sound reasoning that’s one major reason for the hard to understand decision in this case.
Another serious, and perhaps even more insidious factor at play in the Couch case is the all-too-common misunderstanding about how various psychological “disorders” bear upon a person’s culpability. There are only a few “disorders” that truly impair a person’s ability to know right from wrong or to exercise voluntary control over their conduct (for more on this see some of my other articles, such as: Mental Disorders and Accountability: Is Everyone a Victim?). Still, defense attorneys often use (and judges, unfortunately, accept) the “mental disorder excuse,” casting their clients as victims of conditions that predispose them to act in bad ways and successfully argue for treatment in lieu of punishment. And given the horrendous overcrowding that exists in our jails and prisons, such sentences, though contraindicated much of the time, are often eagerly embraced.
If ever there were a prime example of how socio-cultural factors influence the prevalence and degree of character disturbance in our young people, the case of Ethan Couch, (prominently featuring his “enabling” parents, the power of wealth and privilege, and the folly of a confused, misguided, and truly dysfunctional justice system), is it! About the only good news coming out of this news story was the willingness of a few psychologists and other mental health professionals to finally step up and speak out about character issues and the absurdity and harmfulness of casting character problems as “illnesses,” including completely made-up illnesses like “affluenza.” Too bad so many of spokespersons I saw on TV and heard on radio still seemed somewhat wishy-washy in their stance and generally under-informed about character pathology. Still, it seems that a small change might be taking place in the “zeitgeist” (i.e. attitudinal “atmosphere” or milieu) of both our culture and the professional community. So perhaps some good will eventually come of what appears now to be a truly tragic miscarriage of justice.