I am neither a lawyer nor psychologist, so I have license to hold opinions unfettered by professional concerns about the sentence given Ethan Couch who killed four people and injured two others while driving drunk. Couch is the 16-year old son of a wealthy Texas businessman, who drove a truck owned by his father’s company into a stopped car and the pedestrians assisting the driver. Couch had a blood alcohol level of 0.24%. In Texas, the legal limit is 0.08%; Couch had consumed the equivalent of a 140 lb. man consuming nine 12 oz. beers in an hour.
There is no question of Couch’s guilt as he confessed to the crime, but my concern is that Couch was sentenced to 10 years’ probation instead of 20 years in prison, and a one-year stint in an in-patient rehab facility near Newport Beach, California. The facility, the Newport Academy, is clearly not for the poor and down trodden, costing over $30,000 per month. Don’t get me wrong, one of the great failings of our justice system is too little provision for rehabilitation, particular for those convicted of alcohol and drug offenses. Adequate rehabilitation facilities should be available for all in need. In this case, it appears that little in the rehabilitation facility, which advertises equestrian therapy, personal trainers, and organic meals, will remind Couch of the realities of his crimes.
The defense’s argument was that Couch suffers from “affluenza”, a condition characterized by a failure to learn the consequences of ones’ action. Because of the family’s wealth and excessively indulgent parenting, attorneys argued that young Couch had been insulated from learning the consequences of inappropriate and illegal behavior. Rephrased that means that because he had never experienced the negative consequences of inappropriate behavior in one aspect of his life, he was not able to generalize cause and affect relationships to other aspects of life. This is exactly the kind of psychobabble that gives legitimate psychotherapy a bad name.
Examples of excessive indulgence include the gift of a car when he was 13 and large home in which to live unsupervised at age 15. It seems clear that Couch had excellent models of how to use personal wealth to one’s advantage and avoid the adverse consequences of bad behavior. Both his mother and father were no strangers to the Texas judicial system. Since 1989, Ethan’s father, Fred Couch, has 23 entries in police records in Johnson County, Texas, including charges of theft by check, evading arrest, criminal mischief, domestic violence and assault against his ex-wife Tonya. Mr. Couch was not convicted on any of these charges; however, in two cases he did pay restitution to the victims, thus avoiding prosecution. In the assault case, Mrs. Couch did not press charges. In another example of exemplary behavior, Tonya Couch was convicted of misdemeanor reckless driving, after authorities said she tried to run another driver off the road, fined $500 and sentenced to six months of community supervision.
In order to appreciate the implications of this sentence, let’s look at Texas law. According to Chapter 261 of the Family Code (recodified in 1995), child abuse is an act or omission that endangers or impairs a child’s physical, mental or emotional health and development. (italics mine). Child abuse may take the form of physical or emotional injury, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, physical neglect, medical neglect, or inadequate supervision.
Given the long-term effects of indulgent parental behavior experienced by Ethan Couch, the defense argued that he is impaired emotionally and developmentally. The judge was persuaded that young Couch’s interests would be better served through rehabilitation rather incarceration, not at just any rehab center, but a swanky one in California that admits only six patients at a time. This decision has precipitated considerable discussion on television talk shows as well as the internet. The focus of the vitriol is Judge Jean Boyd who demonstrated once again that there are at least two justice systems in Texas, one for the rich and one for the rest of us. Moreover, there are rehabilitation facilities within the Texas juvenile justice system that would seem to be appropriate for situations just like this. Are they so poor at their job, or is Ethan‘s condition so severe he requires the lavish attention of the California facility?
In the real mental health treatment world, “affluenza” is not a mental disorder. It is not recognized by any professional mental health organization, nor does it appear in the manual for the diagnosis of mental disorders (DSM-IV). It a defense that could have been cooked up by any television quack to make a quick buck. Speaking of bucks, no doubt G. Dick Miller, Ph.D., the consulting psychologist that offered the affluenza argument was well compensated for his testimony, as well as Couch’s attorneys Wm. Reagan Wynn and Scott Brown.
The use of the “affluenza” defense is an insult to our judicial system, to child and developmental psychology, as well as to common decency. This is a case where parents should be held accountable for the behavior of their son, since by his own defense they are responsible. Perhaps Fred and Tonya Couch need to serve some time in prison to illustrate some basic rules of parenting. This debacle serves to perpetuate what we all know exists, that there are at least two cultures in the US and one is based on wealth.