December 15, 2013

About that "affluenza."

Those who think the rich teenager — who, driving drunk, killed 4 persons — should have gotten a harsher punishment than 10 years probation are focusing on the expert testimony he presented in his favor. A psychologist named G. Dick Miller testified that having grown up in affluence, "He never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way... He had the cars and he had the money. He had freedoms that no young man would be able to handle."

Miller used the term "affluenza" — a portmanteau of "affluence" and "influenza" — to refer to the young man's psychological deficit.
Affluenza, Miller acknowledged to CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday, is “not a medical term.” The psychologist said that it means “You have too much and you don’t know how to distribute it.” At Cooper’s prompting, Miller acknowledged that the boy was “a spoiled brat.”

The affluenza claim rightfully strikes the most absurd note since Dan White’s infamous 1979 “Twinkie defense.” Psychologists have loosely used the term for years to describe the emotional pitfalls unique to children raised in affluent settings.
Of course, psychologists will have a lot to say about the afflictions of rich people, since rich people are more likely to have money to throw into long, luxurious sessions with psychologists. And rich people have the money to put on a strong defense in a criminal trial, replete with expert testimony framing their deficiencies in the most compellingly sympathetic form.

It's the judge's responsibility to give this testimony the weight it deserves. The problem here is not that rich people have money to dump into a strong defense in a criminal proceeding or that psychologists have coined a catchy/cutesy term for the woes of the rich. It is the judge — Texas State District Judge Jean Boyd — who is accountable for anything that went wrong in the case of Ethan Couch. And we don't know the weight she put on Miller's testimony or the notion of "affluenza."

I don't know how Boyd has treated other teenagers. Perhaps she's deeply informed about the deficiencies of the teenage brain and has shown mercy to a great many poor and working class teenagers and her sentencing of Couch is — within her record — a model of equal treatment of the rich and the poor. Maybe she knows the research that has led, for example, to articles like this — "Developmental Psychologist Says Teenagers Are Different" — in the New York Times.

That's a 2009 interview with Laurence Steinberg, "a developmental psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia... one of the leading experts in the United States on adolescent behavior and adolescent brain biology." He says:
I’m not one of those people who labels adolescence as some sort of mental illness. Teenagers are not crazy. They’re different.

When it comes to crime, they are less responsible for their behavior than adults. And typically, in the law, we don’t punish people as much who are less responsible. We know from our lab that adolescents are more impulsive, thrill-seeking, drawn to the rewards of a risky decision than adults. They tend to not focus very much on costs. They are more easily coerced to do things they know are wrong. These factors, under the law, make people less responsible for criminal acts. The issue is: as a class, should we treat adolescents differently?
Asked whether the criminal justice system is "beginning to take these differences into account during sentencing," Steinberg says:
It’s been coming up in cases. I went to Washington in November to watch the oral arguments in two related cases before the Supreme Court that ask: should someone who committed a crime as a teen be subjected to life imprisonment without a chance for parole, ever?

With these cases, and another in 2005 where the high court threw out the death penalty for adolescents, I was scientific consultant to the American Psychological Association on its amicus brief. What we said in the death penalty case — and now — was that we have considerable evidence showing that adolescents are different from adults in ways that mitigate their criminal responsibility. But since 2005, there’s been a lot of new scientific evidence supporting this position.
At the link you can see links to the U.S. Supreme Court cases and descriptions of the neuroscience research about the teenage brain.

Speaking of brains: Let's try to think clearly about this case and the larger context. Don't get too distracted by the word "affluenza" — which no one said was an actual disease. Don't impulsively slot this into a class warfare template. Remember that the criminal defendant has a right to present the evidence in his favor. And the responsibility for sentencing lies squarely with the judge, but don't succumb to impulsive emotion as you judge the judge.

53 comments:

hoyden said...

I wonder where the judge would decide on the issue where teenage gang member knock out random victims on the street? Seems like just another example of deficit upbringing. Reminds me of the movie Clockwork Orange. How well did that turn out?

St. George said...

What does the judge's gender or prettiness have to do with her judicial reasoning?

Anyway, the defendant had a suspended license and a history of drinking driving violations. Not good.

rhhardin said...

Drunk driving is a new public problem, taken ownership of by MADD in a political power play.

It used to be not a public problem but a personal moral failing, a matter for your pastor and you.

It was promoted to a public problem because you could get something for it if you did.

See Gusfield "The Culture of Public Problems : Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic Order."

The fact is that drunk driving is very common and mostly harmless. People manage to get home.

Readers' Digest published an occasional article discouraging it.

People managed to get along with that without horror.

Until TV found horror sells.

I don't drink at all and never have, so have no stake in this except in the dysfunction of political society.

rhhardin said...

My late friend Fred Grampp on MADD: "If it weren't for the drunks, a lot of them wouldn't be mothers."

traditionalguy said...

Young men like to show off that they are exempt from boundaries by social standing and wealth, but this jerk discovered he was not exempt from boundaries set by Newtonian Physics applying to objects in motion.

Yet his parents' social standing and wealth did exempt him from harsh social opprobrium. So he was half right.

John Lynch said...

Drunk driving isn't mostly harmless because most instances don't lead to death. That's like saying Russian Roulette is mostly harmless because usually the cylinder is empty when the trigger is pulled.

I live in an area with a lot of drunk drivers and I drive for a living. My wife got hit by a drunk, fortunately at low speed so no one was hurt. I've seen an accident caused by a drunk. It's not uncommon at all.

Since I drive around all day for work I have no objection to removing drunks from the roads. I don't want to die.

Larry J said...

That kid just confirmed for himself and his peers that money buys your way out of just about anything. If he can get away with killing people without going to jail, what possible punishment could fit any further crimes he commits. You can be assured that he'll offend again and almost certainly be given another slap on the wrist.

Larry J said...

That kid just confirmed for himself and his peers that money buys your way out of just about anything. If he can get away with killing people without going to jail, what possible punishment could fit any further crimes he commits. You can be assured that he'll offend again and almost certainly be given another slap on the wrist.

Hagar said...

Probably a little more than "wealth and social standing." Try political influence? Owns a newspaper?

Somewhere else it was stated that the standard sentence in such cases (in Texas?) is 5 to 15 years imprisonment.

Hagar said...

Probably a little more than "wealth and social standing." Try political influence? Owns a newspaper?

Somewhere else it was stated that the standard sentence in such cases (in Texas?) is 5 to 15 years imprisonment.

Bob R said...

There's a lot of distance between "I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole" and twelve months probation for a quadruple homicide.

Edward Lunny said...

What a moronic and asinine decision. The kid knew that what he was doing was wrong. At some point self awareness provides a reference to what is right and what is wrong, even if not taught by a parental figure. One can understand and accept that which one would not want to happen to themselves. For a judge to allow this rubbish is a choice to become a willing accomplice in the continued expression of these behaviors. She should be removed from the bench as she has shown an inability to provide critical thought and cogent decision making to her job.

rhhardin said...

Posturing is the reward for making it a public problem.

rhhardin said...

Among the things not public problems, completely off the radar, in the 60s and before were :

1. Drunk driving.

2. Dangerous dogs.

3. Child abuse.

Somehow we survived and were, as I remember it, happier than the handwringers, busybodies and hysterics of today.

But the media had not discovered the cash value of hysteria yet.

Bob R said...

The good thing about MADD is that they embarrassed judges into enforcing laws that were already on the books. No more letting "good old Joe" who drove home every night with a .20 BAC off with a friendly warning.

The bad thing is that they keep pushing for more and more restrictive laws that have little or no effect on drunk driving deaths. The accident in question is a case in point. All of the laws he broke were in effect before MADD came along. Give people a little power and they get drunk on it.

John Lynch said...

If the defendant has a problem with self control and hurting people it seems to me that he should be locked up to protect the rest of us. For a long time.

LarsPorsena said...

Is this a step up or step down from the 'twinkie' defense?

Left Bank of the Charles said...

Typical case of American blonde justice.

CWJ said...

Hi Althouse,

You provide two useful cautions regarding this case. We don't know what role the affluenza testimony played in the sentencing nor whether this sentence is out of the ordinary for this judge.

You also spilled some ink presenting evidence that teenagers are different than other age groups. Fair enough.

But do you have an opinion on this case?

Skeptical Voter said...

I don't know about Ms. Althouse, but I sure have an opinion about this case. Dead is dead, regardless of whether you were killed by a spoiled brat drunk as a skunk in a $60 thousand Ford F350 or a borracho illegal immigrant in a twenty year old beater of a car.

You won't get the dead back by putting the little weasel in jail. On the other hand he might take the first steps toward growing up. I would argue that it's a form of child abuse to leave the young man in his parent's control. It's a hard old world out there, and based on the evidence so far this set of parents has screwed the pooch on their parenting job. In their defense he just may be a rotten kid. It's time to apply some correction in any case.

Ann Althouse said...

"Somewhere else it was stated that the standard sentence in such cases (in Texas?) is 5 to 15 years imprisonment."

The prosecutor asked for 20 years, but apparently, if that had been the sentence, he would have gotten out in 2 years. This way, he's forced into treatment -- good treatment, because his parents will pay.

The judge has sentenced poorer defendants to treatment and the state has not provided it, so the real equality issue may be the state's failure to provide the treatment.

But maybe you prefer to see young people's lives destroyed forever because they got drunk and caused an accident.

Sam L. said...

All the more reason to throw the book at him, and the key away.

garage mahal said...

Only in America.

madAsHell said...

Somehow we survived and were, as I remember it, happier than the handwringers, busybodies and hysterics of today.

Bring back the cold war.

Meade said...

"If it weren't for the drunks, a lot of them wouldn't be mothers."

Ha!

Incidentally, I once knew a couple of affluent 50 year-old mothers who, while blotto drunk at a high society charity fundraiser, decided to take a brand new BMW with its key left in it, drive off at an affluent rate of speed right into a retaining wall. Miraculously, no affluent children were left motherless by their poor decision made under the influence of affluence. (The BMW, however, was totaled.)

DDMAMADD. Drunk Driving Mothers Against Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.

Gahrie said...

But maybe you prefer to see young people's lives destroyed forever because they got drunk and caused an accident.

Maybe if a few more young people's lives were destroyed forever because they got drunk and killed four people, fewer young people would get drunk and drive?

EDH said...

St. George said...
What does the judge's gender or prettiness have to do with her judicial reasoning?

One AP story left intact the impression the judge was a male.

"Essentially what he (the judge) has done is slapped this child on the wrist for what is obviously a very serious offense which he would be responsible for in any other situation," Buffone said. "The defense is laughable, the disposition is horrifying ... not only haven't the parents set any consequences, but it's being reinforced by the judge's actions."

District Judge Jean Boyd issued his sentence Tuesday after Couch "admitted his guilt" last week in four cases of intoxication manslaughter in the June accident, according to a news release from the Tarrant County prosecutor's office. The ruling came after the judge heard three days of testimony from witnesses, victims' loved ones, investigators and treatment experts.

Christy said...

The next logical step is for social services to step in and remove all other minor children from the home and place them in Care. Are there any younger sibs? The next step is to arrest the parents for child abuse. And isn't there some law about supplying a loaded weapon (gassed up truck) later used in murder?

Next we need legislation that removes all children from a home of affluence after the first drunk driving incident by any child.

They can all lead the life of Julia in the government embrace.

Christy said...

BTW, because he admitted guilt and the testimony was that his parents spoiled him, does that open the gates for civil suits by victim families against the parents?

William said...

I can't think of a defense more likely to inspire class hatred. This defense makes me more likely to be judgmental and unforgiving. Well, George Zimmerman is no longer the most hated man in America......I read somewhere that after Prohibition was repealed the number of traffic fatalities went up. I forget the number but it was in the thousands.

Insufficiently Sensitive said...

"He never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way... He had the cars and he had the money.

If the parents default to zero moral guidance, it's a strong argument for the long arm of the law taking charge and holding him accountable, no excuses.

Somehow, non-entitled citizens need recourse against egregious harm from the likes of Ted Kennedy and Ethan Couch. Droits du Signeur need abolishing, and Judge Boyd needs to hear the message that this isn't the sixteenth century.

AReasonableMan said...

Ann Althouse said...
But maybe you prefer to see young people's lives destroyed forever because they got drunk and caused an accident.


Wow!

… and justice for all.

Ann Althouse said...

"But do you have an opinion on this case?"

What is that supposed to mean? I wasn't there. I didn't hear the evidence. I haven't even read the transcript.

Ann Althouse said...

My opinion is about all the opinionated people who jump in with and instant opinion that is lacking context and jamming up the airwaves. If I had more worth saying I'd say it.

LTMG said...

A long time ago I worked with a fellow who seems to have cured his affluenza. While in high school he awoke one morning in a corn field having crashed his sports car. Neither his affluent parents nor his several siblings even realized he was missing. As soon as he completed high school, he struck off on his own, living out of his car while attending trade school. While working at his trade, he pursued a bachelor's degree. I met him shortly after he started working in the professional ranks. At that time, he had never re-established contact with his wealthy family and said he never wanted to. My sense of him was that his feet were very firmly planted on the ground and that he possessed admirable values.

RecChief said...

just like ignorance of the law is no defense, ignorance of responsibility shouldn't be one either.

Brando said...

Caveat--I didn't read the case transcript or opinion so my take is only based on the news articles. But unless there is something more to it, I cannot fathom any reason for the judge's leniency besides bribery. Unless something else emerges, this is rotten to the core.

Do I want this kids life ruined for what he did? Face it, his life is already ruined. He'll always be remembered as a rotten spoiled monster who killed four people and paralyzed one of his friends and never paid anything for it (until the civil suit I suppose). He'd actually be better off doing prison time so he can at least say he paid his debt and did his time.

I would be interested in seeing how the civil suit for wrongful death goes--will his parents find a way to shield their money, OJ-style?

Brando said...

Other question--as this was a bench trial, I wonder the reason the defense didn't go for a jury trial? If the crime can carry at least six months in prison, I thought you had the right to a jury trial. Why were they so sure the judge would be more lenient than a jury? Perhaps this judge has a lenient record?

elkh1 said...

"He never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way..."

He learns much faster behind bars.

Killing four people and gets 10 years probation, while a black kid who "never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way" has shot and killed one is on death row. They keep wondering why we don't trust the legal system any more.

Freeman Hunt said...

If a poor kid's crummy parents set no limits, the courts are usually more than happy to set some limits for him.

Freeman Hunt said...

If his parents are so horrible that they render him not culpable for four counts of manslaughter, shouldn't he be a ward of the state now?

Michael K said...

"Of course, psychologists will have a lot to say about the afflictions of rich people, since rich people are more likely to have money to throw into long, luxurious sessions with psychologists."

This is why psychiatrists had so little success in treating psychosis. Psychotics are broke and have little prospect of being able to afford treatment; hence the"homeless" problem. It is also related to the shooting incidents which create so much nonsense about gun control.

cubanbob said...

And the responsibility for sentencing lies squarely with the judge, but don't succumb to impulsive emotion as you judge the judge."

Say what? Judging from the article there is no justification for what the judge did-she neither rendered justice to the victims families nor did she set an example of good public policy. What she did do is buy a line of bullshit and simply reaffirm the corrosive notion of money buying off justice.

AReasonableMan said...

Ann Althouse said...
But maybe you prefer to see young people's lives destroyed forever because they got drunk and caused an accident.


Four Americans were killed and Althouse says, "What difference does it make?"

AReasonableMan said...

cubanbob said...
What she did do is buy a line of bullshit and simply reaffirm the corrosive notion of money buying off justice.


It is not a corrosive notion but blatant ongoing reality.

CWJ said...

Althouse@11:22

Geez, it was just a question and a sincere one at that.

Althouse@11:23

Fair enough. Thank you.

Larry J said...

Ann Althouse said...

But maybe you prefer to see young people's lives destroyed forever because they got drunk and caused an accident.


From that, I take it you don't give a damn about the four people whose lives he destroyed forever. They are dead forever and this punk gets off with probation and a luxury rehab stay. I predict with near certainty that he'll do something outrageous within that 10 year probation period and odds are nothing will happen to him again. He's learned that money can get him out of anything.

AReasonableMan said...

In the past some folks have painted Althouse as an out of touch elitist. This has largely related to her source of income rather than her legal opinions but the attitudes espoused in this post are unbelievably elitist. I am uncomfortable having someone with these views teaching future jurists. If this is reflective of the thinking in the law school faculty lounge it is not surprising that we get so many unreasonable legal outcomes. Out of touch does not begin to plumb the depths of this kind of thinking. It is apparently just fine for someone to buy their way out of any responsibility for the deaths of four Americans. The prisons are filled with non-violent drug offenders and this useless little fuck gets to kill four people and walk. Only in America.

Steven said...

Rabid dogs are not responsible for their behavior. That doesn't save the dogs from destruction, because we sensibly understand that a deadly danger that's can't be responsible for its actions is more dangerous than one that can.

But maybe you prefer to see young people's lives destroyed forever because they got drunk and caused an accident.

He's an ongoing and unpredictable danger to human life directly in proportion to how much he couples an adult human's bodily strength and intelligence with a lack of responsibility. The lower his "guilt", the more important it is that we harshly apply external controls on his actions.

If the young person is demonstrably irresponsible enough to get heavily drunk and kill four people (and injure, what was it, nine others?) with a deadly weapon? Unless he can demonstrate that he's actually substantially more responsible now than when he got drunk, yes, years in prison, at the very least. I probably couldn't quite manage to put a needle in his arm myself, but I'd be tempted.

Levi Starks said...

It would seem to me that the cure for affluenza would be to remove the sufferer as far away from the affluence as possible.
How much farther away could you get from affluence than prison?

ken in sc said...

Local rich kid gets away with murder. It's not exactly news is it?

30yearProf said...

Affluenza can be cured. The US Marine Corps does so at its Recruit Training Facilities every 12 weeks.

The Texas Department of Corrections does a good job on this "illness' too.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Damn, Althouse, way to make ARM actually reasonable.

I guess this is the new AA justice standard, though--can't do anything, have any rule, enforce any punishment that'd "destroy young people's lives." Just young people, though? Tell you what, let's wait and see how this standard is applied to future cases.