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.”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.
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.
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.Asked whether the criminal justice system is "beginning to take these differences into account during sentencing," Steinberg says:
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?
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?At the link you can see links to the U.S. Supreme Court cases and descriptions of the neuroscience research about the teenage brain.
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.
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.