The so-called “affluenza teen” was released from jail on Monday after spending 720 days in prison, but he will continue to serve six more years of probation. His lax sentence reveals a striking disparity in America's judicial system.
Ethan Couch’s release from jail is the latest development in a saga about a man whose defense for intoxicated driving was that he was too rich and spoiled to understand the consequences of his actions.
In 2013, when he was 16, Couch drove into a group of people helping a stranded driver while drunk and high on marijuana and prescription medication. A sheriff’s deputy who responded to the accident said it “looked more like a plane crash than a car wreck.”
A psychologist described Couch during trial as someone unable to to understand the impact of his actions.
“Instead of the Golden Rule, which was ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’” G. Dick Miller said,” [Couch] was taught we have the gold, we make the rules at the Couch household.”
Couch pled guilty to manslaughter and assault while intoxicated but received no prison time and instead was given 10 years of probation, during which he needed to go to rehabilitation and not use alcohol or drugs. But when video of him drinking surfaced, Couch and his mother, knowing incarceration would be the result of his actions, escaped to Puerto Vallarta, where U.S. Marshals located the two after they had pizza delivered to their location.
The advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has been particularly critical of Couch’s punishment, arguing his release fails to adequately address the harm he caused.
“Two years in jail for four people killed is a grave injustice to the victims and their families who have been dealt life sentences because of one person’s devastating decision to drink and drive,” a MADD statement said.
Court filing shows terms of probation for Texas man who used #affluenza defense in drunken-driving case include wearing tracking device, sticking to a 9 p.m. curfew and taking regular drug tests. And no drinking. https://t.co/Zapuoadh1y— AP Central U.S. (@APCentralRegion) April 2, 2018
The 20-year-old’s lawyers said Couch has taken responsibility for his actions.
“From the beginning, Ethan has admitted his conduct, accepted responsibility for his actions, and felt true remorse for the terrible consequences of those actions,” he said in a statement. “Now, nearly five years after this horrific event, Ethan does not wish to draw attention to himself and requests privacy so he may focus on successfully completing his community supervision and going forward as a law-abiding citizen.”
For MADD, the problem with Couch’s release isn’t merely about this individual case.
“It’s bigger than Ethan Couch. It’s about our justice system,” one MADD member said.
Ethan Couch:— ?????????????????????? (@nuffsaidNY) April 2, 2018
• killed 4 ppl & injured 9 while driving drunk
• given probation due to “affluenza”
• sentenced to 2 years in prison for violating probation
• voted not knowing a previous conviction made her illegible to vote
• sentenced to 5 years in prison
Critics on social media pointed out the disparity in the punishments received by Couch and non-white individuals more generally, raising the prospect that it wasn’t merely his age and trial at a juvenile court that influenced what some call a lenient sentence. One Twitter user pointed out the disparity between the sentence given to Couch and that given to Crystal Mason, who received a prison sentence of five years for illegal voting last week.
Couch’s case factors into national discourse on a more prominent and polarizing issue than drunk driving: systemic racism in the judicial system. A study released last year found that black individuals consistently receive harsher sentences than white men. It’s difficult to fully comprehend whether race held a role in any particular case, but the systemic disparities are undeniable and concrete.
The invocation of wealth as a defense for liability is not a resource that individuals of all races can invoke equally. As noted by critics during his initial sentencing, wealth shouldn’t help exonerate criminal responsibility.