Recently, news programs and papers have been flooded with stories regarding the 16 year-old boy from Texas, whose drunk-driving incident this past summer left four people dead, and a handful of people injured. The most troubling aspect of these stories for most people is the fact that the boy had received a very lenient sentence, a mere ten years’ of probation and some therapy, instead of the jail time that the prosecution asked for. The boy had been drinking prior to the accident, and his blood alcohol level at the time of the crash was about three times over the legal limit, not to mention the fact that an underage minor should have no alcohol in his system. The defense claimed that the boy suffered from what has been termed “affluenza,” which is defined as a condition where children who are from a wealthy and affluent background may not understand that “bad behavior has consequences.” (according to the Los Angeles Times). By touting the need for rehabilitation over a prison sentence, the defense was able to get the boy ten years’ probation, instead of the sentence sought for him.
This story has conjured up a lot of anger across the nation, and has left many people in shock over the fact that this seems to be one more case where the wealthy seem to be able to find their way around the legal system and be treated much more leniently than people of less affluent backgrounds. Many people believe that the outcome may have been different if the boy had not been wealthy, and this has created an outrage over the sense of entitlement that the teen was believed to have gotten. “Affluenza” is not a recognized disorder, but it has received national attention through this story. However, this “condition” that the boy’s defense team believed the teen suffered from prompts us to ask other questions: Don’t some people who live in impoverished conditions also suffer from the inability to see the consequences of certain actions, which is the same argument that “affluenza” gives for wealthy people, just at the opposite end of the spectrum? Should “affluenza” be recognized as a “trump card” of sorts for the wealthy, when others could just as likely have a similar argument about knowing right from wrong?
This recent occurrence begs us to glance at the legal system’s treatment of affluent versus underprivileged or less affluent individuals, and whether that treatment is different based on socioeconomic status. There have been numerous studies done and articles written about incarceration and its link with poverty and other underprivileged conditions. Of course, individuals who are wealthy do get into trouble, as well, and have to face their consequences, but often times, these consequences are far less severe, or are even structured differently, than those faced by people who cannot afford to hire famous defense attorneys or pay to go into fancy rehabilitation centers that serve prime rib and offer cable television.
According to Prison Legal News, there are even some facilities where affluent individuals can pay to rent certain cells in correctional facilities that offer them the use of personal cell phones, electronic devises, music players, computers, and better food (even food they can bring in themselves). This system of “rental incarceration facilities” helps to provide a blanket for wealthy individuals who, as a result, might not have to deal with the often crowded and dangerous correctional facilities that other convicted individuals have to endure. This creates what looks like severe inequality in corrections based on socioeconomic status. Further, are these wealthy individuals even paying for the consequences of their actions in a way that will prevent recidivism in the future?
We have all read stories about the lives of the rich and the famous, when they are caught with drugs or illegal substances, pulled over for drunk-driving after multiple offenses, or even found evading taxes. We have also heard the stories of their short, week-long jail stints in rental, fancier correctional facilities, or their sentences to rehabilitation in facilities that cost more per year than most of our own homes are worth. There are also stories of how these wealthy individuals and celebrities are often times able to maneuver their way around the system by simply providing a police officer with an autograph or by hiring a defense team that has received national attention. Has our society truly taught children like the sixteen year-old from Texas that wealth and affluence can buy immunity from the legal system? Have we truly taught children like these that they do not need to know the consequences of their actions as long as they or their parents have enough in their bank accounts?
Yet, this is a completely different story from people who do not live their lives in affluence and wealth, and who might even be facing poverty. Not only have studies shown that impoverished conditions can lead to incarceration, but many individuals are faced with a life of poverty after serving their time. They might have their criminal record following them for certain jobs and professions, and they might have trouble getting “back on their feet” after having been released. Would the story be different if they, too, could afford highly paid defense attorneys who could argue the need for rehabilitation in a $400,000 per year facility, or pay their way into correctional facilities where they could use their iPods and order breakfast from a menu? Or, perhaps, would things be different if an attorney could argue a defense somewhat similar to the viral “affluenza” that has taken shape after the recent Texas case, and show the jury that impoverished people simply cannot know the consequences of their actions?
The Texas story really opened my eyes to the legal system and has prompted me to read and research the seemingly disparate treatment of people from different socioeconomic statuses. Perhaps I am not seeing the whole truth, and perhaps I need to perform more research into the facts and look deeper into statistics about poverty, wealth, and incarceration. But one thing is certain after reading and seeing the news about this teenage boy and the lives that he disrupted by his actions. We need to make sure that our legal system is not showing wealthy people that they can hide behind and seek refuge in their bank accounts and plead that their sheltered lives in affluence has not enabled them to know right from wrong or think about the consequences of their actions. We need to encourage parents everywhere, both wealthy and not, to not engage in behavior that demonstrates that wealth provides a “get out of jail free” card. And, we need to ensure that our legal system operates in a fair manner for every individual, providing the appropriate consequences and sentences, while still providing justice to those who were wronged.