drunkdrivingOne night in June, a teen named Ethan was driving with seven friends in his father’s truck. They were highly intoxicated on beer they had stolen from Wal-Mart, and possibly other alcoholic substances, after a house party. Ethan also had Valium in his system. The truck swerved up onto a sidewalk, killing four people. Two teens were thrown from the back of the pickup, and one is currently in a coma.

This case wasn’t made widely public until the sentencing: Ethan received 10 years’ probation. Prosecutors had asked for 20 years’ imprisonment. One of the arguments that a psychologist for the defense used was that Ethan was unable to understand the consequences of his actions. The developmental argument for a still-developing brain was used, but a rather creative one was also brought up: that Ethan suffered from “affluenza”.

The psychologist was using the term to mean that because of his family’s wealth and privilege, Ethan had not been taught responsibility in such a way that he could be held liable for his actions. It was also noted that Ethan was never punished for his behavior, which included being found unconscious and naked in a car with a 14-year-old girl.

That’s not actually what “affluenza” means: the original term was made up to explain why highly consumerist nations have lower overall happiness. However, the idea that somebody would be let off lightly for a crime solely because of their wealth and privilege has led to a sweeping rush of headlines and fury from many quarters.

The New York Times notes that rehabilitative sentences are not necessarily unusual, and that the judge has not stated that the psychologist’s arguments were what led her to choose a light sentence. And yet how many of us believe that a young man of color, charged with the same crime, would have received the same sentence because of a history of poverty and parental drug addiction- two external factors that have actually been shown to increase substance use and dangerous behavior?

It made me think of my last post, on an African-American 15-year-old sentenced to six back-to-back life sentences plus 118 years. Forget killing people, he never even laid a finger on anyone, and yet he will spend the rest of his life in prison. Ethan, who drove drunk and killed four people, will be spending some time in a $450,000 a year rehab facility. Something is broken here.

I’m not saying I agree that Ethan should have been locked up for two decades.  He did not mean to kill anyone, and I don’t believe children should receive equivalent sentences to adults. My problem is this: a teen allegedly was never taught the consequences of his behavior, and because he was never taught the consequences of his behavior he won’t have the suffer the consequences of his behavior.

What do you think about all this?