Saturday, December 14, 2013

The affluenza paradox

“Ignorance of the law is no ... uh ... something like that.”
— Cletus Hogg, Dukes of Hazzard

Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old Texan, killed four people with his car in June while driving drunk. He got probation over jail time because his attorney claimed that, as a rich, coddled teen, Couch had no understanding of real-world consequences.

By learning that rich people can buy their way out of their problems, however, Couch now has a sharp understanding of how the real world works. So can it be said now that he deserves to get off? But if he doesn’t after all, doesn’t that render the lesson invalid?

Ah, the affluenza paradox.

Personally, I was inoculated against affluenza at birth. It was the strongest stuff they had in 1980, but medical advancements have improved remarkably since then. Like millions of Americans, I make sure to get my booster shot every fall, despite the alleged link between affluenza vaccines and artism.

All snark aside, I can’t think of a better representation of America’s problems right now than judges taking “affluenza” seriously. We hear endlessly from the 1 percent and their apologists about how it’s wrong to point fingers when life treats you badly. Responsibility! Accountability! Individualism! Kids these days are coddled! Everything is always your own fault!

And yet...Ethan Couch. I hope the Randians among us disparage this slap on the wrist as much as the rest of us do. I won’t hold my breath.

But it seems to me that anyone, regardless of political stance and/or perspective on the criminal-justice system, should be against this ruling. The legal precedent of someone being too far outside the realm of reality could have massive consequences for the criminal-justice system.

After all, poor people often take extreme actions to meet their most basic needs. Could it be argued that survival mode causes people to toss aside their understanding of civil society?

Can drug addicts no longer be punished for crimes because, as addicts, they’re so far gone mentally that they can’t function normally?

Will people who have lived in impoverished neighborhoods their whole lives, had negligent parents, never got an education and have bleak job prospects also get the benefit of the doubt after a quadruple homicide?

I’d add a hypothetical for drunken driving, but that isn’t necessary.

I’d like to see more drug addicts get help instead of prison time. And I’m all about not sentencing someone who, say, stole food from an abandoned store after a storm leaves them stranded. But we can’t let people off of major crimes for not understanding society. That describes most people who belong in prison. As well as many who don’t.

A society that lets wealth, and the astounding ignorance it supposedly creates, be an excuse for deadly behavior should be beyond anyone’s understanding.

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