Merlene Davis: There's no justice for Texas teen with 'affluenza'

Herald-Leader columnistDecember 16, 2013 

I was surprised, but not shocked, about last week's news from Texas that a 16-year-old boy, the son of affluent parents, was given 10 years' probation for killing four people while driving drunk.

I wasn't shocked because the justice system has always favored the rich. The surprise for me was the boy's defense team using the term "affluenza" to mitigate the punishment that could have come his way.

The teen had pleaded guilty and was facing a 20-year sentence recommendation from the prosecution, a sentence for ordinary kids whose parents are working stiffs. The defense, however, said the boy suffered from too much privilege and not enough discipline. They called that "affluenza," a term used to describe psychological problems displayed by children of means.

The teen is rich and spoiled, in other words, so to punish him for killing four people would be inappropriate because he just didn't know any better.

The teen pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter for killing a youth pastor, a mother and daughter, and a 24-year-old woman who was being helped by the other three because her car had broken down.

The teen had a blood-alcohol level of 0.24 when he drove one of his father's company trucks 60 to 70 mph in a 40-mph zone. Seven other teens were in the truck, and one was paralyzed.

State District Judge Jean Boyd went along with that reasoning after a psychologist, testifying as an expert witness, said "affluenza" prevented the teen from understanding consequences for his actions.

Instead of prison, Boyd sentenced the teen to one year of in-patient therapy at Newport Academy, a private treatment center in Newport Beach, Calif., that costs $450,000 a year. Then he is to undergo another year of outpatient therapy. She told his parents to foot that bill, and they agreed. If the boy messes up in those 10 years, he could be sent to prison, she said.

So what sentence would the judge have handed down to a poor kid whose parents couldn't afford such treatment?

Well, juvenile records are sealed for the most part, so we can't really tell.

Except for one case back in March 2012 that Boyd heard. A 14-year-old black boy, whose financial status is unknown, admitted to jumping out of a car, hitting someone with one punch, and that person later died. That teen was sentenced to 10 years in prison. One reason, according to the victim's mother, was that the judge couldn't find a treatment center that would take the teen.

Maybe the boy's parents didn't have nearly $40,000 a month to pay for his treatment at a private treatment center. Another reason was that he had not shown remorse. But then, neither had the 16-year-old. That's the nature of "affluenza" isn't it?

I've read arguments that the judge likes to try to rehabilitate juveniles, which I agree with. Most juveniles are too immature to understand consequences.

But how is a 14-year-old a lesser candidate for rehabilitation than a 16-year-old? Why send one to prison and not the other?

The one big difference is money. Some juveniles have it and some don't. The ones with money can get therapy that may rehabilitate them. The poor ones get guards and bars.

I just don't understand.

We can't continue to put poor kids behind bars and expect them to be mature, responsible adults when they are released. And surely we can't continue to slap the hands of rich kids and expect them to learn from their mistakes.

In the end, both groups suffer.

Can we not see that America is beginning to look like the setting for a Charles Dickens novel in which the gap between the rich and the poor is immoral?

The rich finding favor in the justice system is not news. We'll get over this case of blatant favoritism about as quickly as we seem to put aside school shootings.

But please, tell me. What are we doing to our children?

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Twitter: @reportmerle. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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