The 16-year-old was charged as a juvenile in a vehicular homicide that killed four people. He was drunk while driving a car. His blood alcohol was three times the legal limit for an adult.
Prosecutors in the case asked that Couch be sentenced to 20 years in prison. Instead of prison, he was sentenced to 10 years of probation, with his father paying for costly counseling.
What grabbed the headlines in this case was the novel defense theory. A psychologist, G. Dick Miller, testified that the boy suffered from “affluenza,” a condition in which the familial wealth with which he was surrounded severed any “rational link between behavior and consequences.” Apparently, Couch’s parents spoiled him rotten, doing nothing, even when he was found passed out in a car with a naked 14-year-old girl.
What troubles me about the Couch case is not that he escaped prison; a couple decades behind bars would not have brought those he killed back from the dead. What troubles me is the double standard: a rich white kid got away with the functional equivalent of murder because his parents had money, lots of money. Poor folk generally can’t buy their way out of big trouble in criminal court.
I’m not buying “affluenza” as a defense any more than I bought the “Twinkie defense” years ago. The crime of driving while intoxicated is typically fairly simple to prove and does not involve sophisticated intellectual gymnastics about a defendant’s mental state: Did a person operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated on a public road? That’s it.
But what good does prison do, really?
A regular reader of this column wrote me several weeks ago. He enjoys the columns, but they are so bleak, he said. Can’t I think of something good to say about the criminal justice system for the holidays?
I’ve tried. I really have. But I’ve concluded that asking a criminal defense lawyer to say something good about the system is much like asking an oncologist to opine about the beauty of cancer.
Prisons are a fairly recent innovation in the history of our civilization. We send far too many people to them, for far too long, for far too many offenses. Criminal defense lawyers seek to make sure the courts don’t lose sight of the humanity of those accused of crimes. What sort of society resorts to cages and calls it justice?
Law schools teach that there are four purposes served by penal sanctions: general deterrence, or sending a message to others not to misbehave; specific deterrence, as in stopping the individual receiving the sentence; rehabilitation, as in restoring a person to society; and, lastly, punishment.
I watched a sentencing not long ago in central Connecticut. The defendant was charged with hitting a young man with a motor vehicle, crippling him, and thereafter fleeing from the scene. The driver was intoxicated.
He entered a plea of guilty. The state and the defendant agreed that at the time of sentencing, he would receive a sentence of up to three years in prison, in legal speak, he was facing a “cap” of three years, with a right to argue for less.
The sentencing arguments were grim. The family of the injured young man was gracious, but wanted all of three years as a punishment for the driver. The victim told the court he wanted the defendant to feel some of what he felt daily. It was chilling, reminding me of Nietzsche’s comment about how twisted Christian theology can be — was the pleasure of the redeemed really enhanced by beholding the suffering of the damned? Magnanimity, largeness of soul, is not to be sought in paradise, apparently.
So too with our use of prisons. Do we really want to foster a society in which people find satisfaction in contemplation of the suffering of others? That seems merely to compound the consequences of crime with the bitter salt of cruelty.
The judge in the Middletown case decided to put the driver in prison for 2.5 years, rather than three, but to lengthen the period of probation the driver would serve once released. The justification? Prison would be too easy, there would be a terminal point he could look forward to once released. Probation, and a requirement of community service, however, would remind the driver daily of what he had done. Probation would be a more effective punishment — rehabilitation and punishment were joined, shotgun style, in a hasty wedding.
The proceedings struck me as bizarre, children playing at the work of gods.
The driver had expressed remorse and was a convicted felon. He was headed to prison. There was no doubt the purposes of general and specific deterrence were served. And there did not seem to be a pressing need for rehabilitation. The driver erred, an isolated mistake destroying the life of another. His remarks to the court made clear he understood the consequences of his conduct.
So we put the kid in prison, and then on probation, to punish him. When will we have built enough prisons to put away all who have done some stupid, reckless or malignant act? Haven’t all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God?
I hate prisons, I tell you. Few belong in them. We imprison people because we are angry, we want revenge, we pretend that making one man suffer will ease the irredeemable loss of another. It’s all just silliness, just like “affluenza,” lacking any “rational link between behavior and consequences.”
I don’t know a whit about Ethan Couch or his case. All that I have learned, I read in press accounts. But what I read renders him unlikable. His parents strike me as caricatures, buying their way out of trouble. I want to beat Couch with his silver spoon.
But I am not outraged that Couch escaped prison. Paradoxically, the fact that he did so is my response to the request to say something good about the criminal justice system. I have a two-word answer now: Ethan Couch.