It seems that many feel Ethan Couch – the teen who killed four people while drunk driving – will finally get what he deserves, after he recently violated the terms of his probation and fled to Mexico. Justice, finally! But can we really speak of justice, when young people, even if they do commit a horrendous crime, are locked up for a decade?
It is absolutely clear that Couch cannot get away with what he did. But is 10 years of probation and mandatory treatment for alcohol and drug abuse – his sentence in 2014 – equal to ‘getting away’ with a crime? Are we willing to imagine that being under supervision until one is 26 years old, with the threat of imprisonment hanging above one’s head, will actually inflict pain and thus be experienced as a severe punishment, especially for a teen or young adult? Are we willing to take a step back and think about what would be an sensible approach to the crime committed by Couch?
Indeed, the criminal justice system impacts and treats rich offenders and poor offenders differently. But what should be the standard against which we measure justice? Is it enough to ask for equal treatment? If so, should we adjust the sentences of rich offenders to match those of their poor counterparts, or, rather, should we adjust the sentences of poor offenders to match those that their rich counterparts receive? Or is justice more than equality before the law?
It is also clear that ‘affluenza’ – an inability to understand the consequences of one’s actions because of financial privilege – in itself cannot be a reason to give offenders a pass. However, if we agree that parenting should play a role in how we deal with young offenders, growing up in detrimental circumstances should be taken seriously. And we should wish and demand that such circumstances are taken into account when prosecutors and judges make decisions about young offenders who grow up in marginalized communities and resource-poor families. We should demand that not more abandonment but rather improving the circumstances in which they grow up is central.
The anger of journalists and the public, as expressed in the (social) media towards Couch is understandable, of course, given the harm that Couch has caused, but it is troubling nonetheless. At the worst, this anger signifies how hungry people are for revenge. But a desire for revenge seems to leave little room for thinking critically about what is wrong with the criminal justice system, for thinking about alternatives to imprisonment, for imagining a more fair and humane system.
A slightly more optimistic interpretation of the anger towards Couch is that it reminds people of how unequal and unfair society is and how it impacts all facets of life. But one wishes that this anger was directed not towards one individual and his mother, but towards the actual problem: that the socioeconomic (and racial) disparities are a structural problem of this criminal justice system, and a reflection of deep-seated inequalities in society.
Image by hope4happines on Flickr (CC)