Being rich is a burden. There’s a reason that comic book character Richie Rich was dubbed the “poor little rich boy.” You think it’s a picnic being the only child of billionaire parents and having two of everything? How are you supposed to choose between them? And who gets stuck paying the inheritance taxes?
The rich can’t catch a break. They’re given their own reality shows and gossiped about in the tabloids, as icons and amusement for others. But then they’re expected to follow everyone else’s laws like nobodies. The money people happily take from them at other times isn’t supposed to influence justice.
Except that it did recently in Texas, turning the stuff of parody into a national outrage.
A rich teenager walked away with probation after killing four people and seriously injuring two others while driving drunk. The judge accepted the contention of a defense psychologist that the teen was the victim of “affluenza,” raised with such wealth and entitlement that he never learned from his mistakes and was not responsible for his actions.
At 16, Ethan Couch got drunk on stolen booze, mixed it with Valium, drove with three times the legal amount of alcohol in his blood (though 16-year-olds can’t legally drink at all) at 30 mph above the speed limit. He slammed into someone whose car had broken down, and others who had come to help. One person who wasn’t killed remains paralyzed, unable to speak.
Prosecutors had sought a 20-year prison sentence. But for all of his flagrantly illegal and multiply fatal actions, Couch got away with only 10 years of probation and an order to spend some time -- his defense suggested a year or two -- at a $450,000-a-year treatment facility. It features “equine therapy” and organic foods and should fit his parents’ $10 million a year budget.
Couch’s lawyer argued they never set limits, and gave him whatever he wanted, so how could he know how to act? As evidence, the judge was told of a time when, at 15, the boy was found passed out in a car with a naked 14-year-old girl, but wasn’t punished.
Calls are mounting for removal of the juvenile court judge, Jean Boyd, though there are no allegations of corruption or kickbacks. Money did buy this kid justice, but not because it greased palms or afforded him a top lawyer. Rather, because the judge accepted the myth of the poor little rich kid and used it to perpetuate the privileges. Instead of putting an end to the cycle by imposing a real punishment, her ruling effectively says because wealthy people have gotten away with things before, they should again. Now it’s a precedent.
Couch’s parents had misdemeanor, mostly traffic-related, run-ins with the law -- five for the mother, 22 for the father since 1989 -- but they either got dismissed or resulted in fines that were easily paid.
Children deserve second chances if they show remorse. Couch never even apologized to the bereaved families at his sentencing.
Imagine a public defender for a poor kid trying to get his client off on the grounds that his parent, working multiple jobs, wasn’t around enough to show him right from wrong. The kid would probably have been petitioned to adult court and sent to the slammer for a long time.
And maybe that’s the real point here. If a rich young person can be found not guilty because he was never taught responsibility, wouldn’t a poor one have a more legitimate excuse because poverty left him few choices? Yet instead of giving the poor the benefit of the doubt, we are conditioned to punish and regulate them. A rich kid’s “affluenza” is a poor kid’s “pathology of poverty.” One gets you off and the other gets you a prison record, with a domino effect on your prospects in life.
Couch did learn something from his parents. He learned that wealth can, indeed, buy extraordinary concessions. It’s not likely that the equine therapy and organic foods will teach him otherwise. And what does the poor kid learn from this ruling? That even in our meritocracy, there are two standards of justice, they don’t favor people like him or her, and they start applying from the moment of birth.
Rekha Basu is a Des Moines Register columnist.