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On the evening of June 15, 2013 a young man named Ethan Couch killed four innocent people and injured nine more in a drunk driving accident. This case is controversial because of the sentencing that Mr. Couch received. Mr. Couch was only 16 when this horrific event occurred. At first, Couch was going to walk away with no jail time because he was able to convince the jury he was a victim of “affluenza.” Affluenza is a condition in which children, predominantly from richer families, have a sense of entitlement and are irresponsible and have poor behavior because of the lack of boundaries set by their parents. Given the information given to the court, they believed that Ethan Couch suffered from this “affliction” and granted his parole. I feel that Affluenza should not be an easy out for people in the judicial system and this type of escape from their crimes should be scrutinized to the highest degree. Lawyers and judges need to take a step back in this age of wanting to rehabilitate criminals and realize that sometimes certain people do need to go to jail, or in this case, not given the lightest sentence possible using affluenza to go about it and America needs to take a lesson as a whole from this situation and focus on the rampant trouble of underage drinking that is currently going on in the United States.
In the summer of 2013, Ethan Couch allegedly stole beer from a local Walmart and then proceeded to get drunk at a party. Once he was intoxicated, Couch allegedly careened his vehicle into four pedestrians who had stopped on the side of the road to help a stranded driver. All four of the pedestrians died, and the two passengers that were inside of Ethan Couches truck were thrown from the vehicle. One of the passengers is now unable to move or talk because of the brain injuries he suffered as a result of the car crash. When Mr. Couch was brought to court on four accounts of involuntary vehicular manslaughter, he pled guilty. Alas, the defense did not blame Ethan for the incident, but rather, the lack of parenting he had received in his youth. His lawyer and psycologist stated that “It was his parents, who raised their boy with few limits and even less discipline, indulging him to the point where he was unable to appreciate the importance of rules and laws, not to mention the consequences of breaking them” (Park). This is known as affluenza, and it is more commonly used to refer to the lack of guilt that young people feel because of their relentless privilege. They blamed the entire situation on Couch’s parents, who allowed their son to drink at only 13 years old, said CNN. Which can be inferred upon that his parents were not the best role models for a child his age. His defense argued that his parents did not do their job of being the responsibility bearers, and thus let Ethan get away with whatever he wanted, which in turn resulted in this horrific accident. His lawyer and psychologist argued that Couch should not serve any jail time and instead, seek treatment for the extremely poor parenting he received. He was sentenced to ten years’ probation in a rehab facility, and the judge made it clear that one wrong step, and Ethan could see himself being moved to an adult court.
After Couch was sent to his rehabilitation center in California, Mr. Couch and his mother decided to take an unauthorized trip in the middle of his rehabilitation. As a result, in December of 2015, after serving only two of his ten-year rehabilitation probation, Ethan and his mother fled to Mexico. This was discovered when Ethan’s parole officer was unable to contact him or his mother for several days. Two weeks after fleeing to Mexico, Ethan and his mother were found and arrested near the Puerto Vallarta resort. Upon returning to court, Ethan’s case was moved to adult court and he was sentenced to two years in jail. As of today, Ethan is still serving his jail time and is set for release and probation in the coming year. This court case highlights the extreme disparity in court sentencing. For example, a 16-year-old named Jaime Arellano was driving under the influence of alcohol and ran a red light, crashing into a car, killing a pregnant woman and her unborn child. Jaime was sentence to prison while Ethan received his 10-year rehabilitation from his “affluenza”. Jaime had no possibility of arguing he had “affluenza”. Himself and his family are illegal immigrants and settled in East Texas. He speaks very little English and had almost no knowledge of the US court system. He had dropped out of High School five months before the accident. These facts are the main reason Jaime could never reasonably get away with using Affluenza in a court case. As he represents those that are in fact, almost the opposite of affluenza. He was never sheltered from reality and societal norms from his parents. His parents came to America for a better life for their children and always tried to get him to do the right thing. Something that didn’t happen with Ethan, per the reports. This is important because it shows the varying differences in how the two separate court cases played out.
The biggest issue that this court case brings up is the adaption of affluenza into the modern lexicon and the steps that need to be taken to make sure that affluenza is debunked and not considered a reasonable excuse in court. The other big issue that this court case brings up is the large amount of underage drinking and underage DUI cases in the United States today and what can be done to stop them and lower the statistics. Psychologists believe that Affluenza is nothing more than junk science.
Affluenza is not a recognized illness in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association. Chris Ferguson, a writer for Time and a clinical psychologist, states that he has never once seen a practitioner try to diagnose anyone with affluenza (Ferguson). And there is little to no research done on it. The only research that has ever been done on affluenza is a 2010 study by Peter Lorenzi and Roberto Friedman in which they found little to no evidence of affluenza sweeping America. Ferguson believes that Affluenza is mostly a product of “pop psychology” and the term doesn’t even mean what Couch’s lawyers intended it to mean. Ferguson describes affluenza as “a contagious social disease, typified by a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ materialism, spending and debt” (Ferguson). This is an excellent explanation of how the lawyers of Mr. Couch used the term in the complete wrong way. The US legal system has checks and balances in place which make sure that these types of “junk sciences” can’t be used in court decisions, so it is interesting to see how it managed to squeak its way into this court case. Ferguson believes the reason it made its way into the case was the simple reason that the prosecutors didn’t make the effort to challenge the use of affluenza in the case.
Instead, Ferguson believes that Couch, instead of affluenza, might have documented mental health issues. He argues that “being raised in an atmosphere of instant gratification and negligible consequences for bad behavior is [not] healthy for child development… Couch’s risky behavior might indicate alcoholism and, if he truly were evidencing a pathological sense of entitlement or lack of empathy for others, it’s possible he might be diagnosable with a personality disorder” (Ferguson). Ferguson believes that the biggest influencer of the case was money and privilege and how the judge conveyed the message that the rich can buy a different justice than the poor.
The next biggest factor that this court case brings up is the rampant underage use of alcohol and the large number of underage DUI’s that happen in the US. Texas, the state that Ethan Couch is from, and committed the atrocious crimes, does happen to have some stricter laws, and some not as strict laws compared to our state of Massachusetts.
Per the December 2013 Report to Congress on the Prevention and Reduction of Underage Drinking done by the US Department of Health and Human Services, 20.4% of children ages 15-17 admit to using alcohol and 12.3% admit to binge use of alcohol within the month the study was done. The study reports that, in Texas, traffic fatalities because of an underage driver with a Blood Alcohol Content of greater than .01 was at a staggering 32%. These statistics may be in part due to Texas’ lackadaisical viewpoint when it comes to house parties and children drinking. In Texas, a child under the age of 21 can drink and have alcohol purchased for them as long as they are with their parent or guardian. Texas also grants something called “Specific Affirmative Defense” for retail stores that sell alcohol. This means that if a retail store sells alcohol to a minor who used a fake ID to purchase said alcohol, the retail store can claim that they inspected the false ID and came to a reasonable conclusion that the ID was valid and not fake based on its appearance, this results in a retail store not being charged with selling alcohol to minors if something happens and the purchase gets traced back to the store. Texas also doesn’t impose any liability on the homeowner in the result of a busted house party, something that Massachusetts does. The report also states that in 2013, in Texas, 1,915 minors were found in possession of alcohol. 906 out of the 8,021 retailers in Texas failed to comply with the laws of selling alcohol to minors and were fined a total of $917,600. The report states that there are 12,000 teens that attended underage drinking programs in 2013, and the EUDL program, the Enforcing Underage Drinking Laws Program, served 46,000 youth in Texas during 2013.
The State of Texas, in 2013, spent roughly $33.8 million dollars on K-12 school-based underage drinking prevention programs, and spent $2.3 million on community-based underage drinking programs. These statistics are important because they highlight things that can be changed in Texas’ rulebook that would make it harder for underage people to purchase alcohol.
One example of something that can be done is that Texas can adopt the Social Host Law that Massachusetts has. The Social Host Law states that “whoever furnishes any such beverage or alcohol for a person under 21 years of age shall be punished by a fine of not more than $2,000 or by imprisonment for not more than one year or both” (The Social Host Law). This would discourage parents from letting their children drink, as that may lead to parties and if their son or daughter gets busted throwing a party the parents take full responsibility. Something else Texas can do is that they can impose harder sanctions on retail stores caught selling alcohol to minors, and they can require all retail stores use black lights as a means of verifying the ID authenticity.
Underage drinking in the whole of the US is a serious problem. A paper written by Frances Harding, Ralph Hingson, Michael Klitzner, et al. entitled “Underage Drinking: A Review of Trends and Prevention Strategies” outlines the underage drinking epidemic in the US and the prevention strategies that are trying to be used to curb the use of alcohol by minors. The paper states that in 2013, 26% of tenth graders report using alcohol in the past 30 days, and 5.4 million minors and young adults reported binge drinking in the past month. The paper states that alcohol is a determining factor in roughly 4,300 deaths of minors in the US each year.
For example, the paper states that on the topic of underage drinking, “In 2013, of the 1,691 drivers aged 15-20 years who were killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes, 492 (29%) had a blood alcohol concentration of = .01” (Harding et al). Federal, state, and local governments as well as community coalitions and organizations and concerned individuals” (Harding et al) In 2004, Congress mandated the ICCPUD, which plays a leadership role in underage drinking by forming community-based organizations. In 2006, STOP was created. STOP is the “Sober Truth on Preventing Underage Drinking Act”. They provide funding for annual grants to community coalitions that work to prevent and reduce underage drinking. All of these facts that have been presented are excellent examples of why Ethan Couch should have been found guilty of the charges. Not only would it have taught the boy a lesson, but it also would have shed a large light onto the taboo topic of underage drinking and what can be done to stem it in the future. These statistics prove that what America needs now more than ever is to continue funding these programs and furthering education to minors on the dangers of underage drinking.
America in recent years has come very far in terms of underage drinking. A graph by Harding et al. shows that in 2013, less than 10% of 12th graders report that they drove after consuming any alcohol, and 5% of 12th graders reported they drove after consuming more than 5 alcoholic beverages. These data points, compared to the report from 2003, 10 years prior, show a decline in this behavior. In 2003, More than 15% of 12th graders reported they drove after consuming any alcohol and 10% of 12th graders reported they drove after consuming more than 5 alcoholic beverages. This is good as it shows a positive downtrend in driving under the influence; most likely due to the programs children are shown and take part of that push the dangers of underage drinking and driving. The federal government has also, recently, sponsored many different types of studies used to evaluate prevention strategies. There are many things that Harding et al. feel that can be done to curb underage drinking and driving. For example, Harding et al. believe that the social availability of alcohol needs to be stopped, and social host liability and hosting of underage drinking party penalties need to be increased. They believe that the pricing of alcohol can also help curb underage drinking. Harding et al. feel that increasing alcohol tax rates and restricting drink specials will help stop underage drinking. They also believe that a standard across the US for youth BAC limits should be put in place. Harding et al. believe that “enforcement can result in greater compliance and better public health outcomes” (Harding et al). Harding and their fellow writers believe that “The process of educating the public about those laws and their enforcement has reinforced and strengthened the effects of the policies…one clear factor has been increased attention to the issue at all levels of society.
Federal initiatives, together with efforts by the national media, state and local governments, and interested private organizations, have moved underage drinking to a prominent place on the national public health agenda (Harding et al). The group Healthy People 2020 have a list of goals that they wanted to achieve in 10 years. These included “increasing the number of adolescents who have never tried alcohol, increasing the proportion of adolescents who disapprove of having one or two alcoholic drinks nearly every day and who perceive great risk in binge drinking, reduce the number of underage drinkers who engage in binge drinking, reduce the proportion of adolescents reporting use of alcohol or any illicit drugs during the past 30 days, and reduce the proportion of adolescents who report that they rode, during the previous 30 days, with a driver who had been drinking alcohol” (Report to Congress).
In conclusion, I believe that if we continue to take positive steps forward we can easily see the good change that we want to see in regards to underage drinking, and while the result of the Ethan Couch case is not what many consider fair, it was an excellent starting point to have these discussions regarding underage drinking and the mental health issues that come from it. I still firmly believe, after my research of the topic, that Ethan Couch is absolutely guilty, and should have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
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