Hamilton Legal: Suffering from Affluenza

Sara Sirota

On June 15, 2013, a 16-year-old boy from North Texas lost control of his speeding truck while driving drunk. The incident caused the deaths of four innocent people. The boy pleaded guilty to four counts of delinquent conduct/involuntary manslaughter and two counts of delinquent conduct/intoxication assault. Prosecutors sought the maximum of 20 years in state custody. On December 10, 2013, Judge Jean Boyd gave him his sentence: 10 years of probation. In other words, four people are dead and the boy responsible for their deaths gets to receive therapy at a California rehabilitation center for the next 10 years at a cost of $450,000. His defense? “Affluenza.”After examining the teenager, a psychologist claimed that his wealthy upbringing prevented him from understanding proper versus improper behavior. In other words, he has “affluenza.”

Therefore, he should not be held responsible for his actions. The American Psychiatric Association does not recognize “affluenza” as a legitimate diagnosis. It is no wonder then that this case has gained national media attention and a great amount of criticism.

Although the judge never claimed the “affluenza” defense influenced her decision, the fact that the boy’s lawyers had the audacity to put it forward as a defense is concerning. The fact that the judge only gave him a probation sentence is certainly deplorable. The outcome of this case proves to be an injustice in our justice system.

Dr. Suniya Luthar, a Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University who studies children of affluent parents, suggested, “We are setting a double standard for the rich and poor.” She gave the example, “What is the likelihood if this was an African American, inner-city kid that grew up in a violent neighborhood to a single mother who is addicted to crack and he was caught two or three times … what is the likelihood that the judge would excuse his behavior and let him off because of how he was raised?”

Dr. Luthar addresses an important problem in our justice system. We are quick to assume that people from underprivileged, violent communities are irredeemable, so we must subject them to harsher forms of punishment. However, we tend to exempt individuals from more privileged backgrounds as being above the law. I am not suggesting here that we should then excuse those from poorer communities in order to eliminate the double standard that Dr. Luthar described. Instead, the justice system must hold people from rich backgrounds accountable for any illegal actions just as it holds those from poor backgrounds accountable.

The outcome of this case signifies another important problem in our justice system. We are increasingly relying on far-fetched excuses to avoid a penalty. Some have referred to this trend by suggesting that neuroscience is diminishing the traditional crime and punishment concept of the American justice system. In other words, scientists are constantly discovering new mental illnesses, which people will then use to defend their actions in a court of law. I do firmly believe that there are instances in which people’s mental illnesses prevent them from understanding right versus wrong, but “affluenza” is surely going too far. Discovering where to draw that line between acceptable and unacceptable defenses will be a challenge for the justice system moving forward.

A very pressing issue to address is what will come of this case. Will the 16-year-old boy actually change? I think not. The entire claim for why the judge should give him probation instead of jail time was that he never learned proper behavior due to his wealthy upbringing. Well, it is his parents’ wealth that afforded him top lawyers and will be affording him the $450,000 therapy treatment, so perhaps the outcome of this case will only reinforce his above-the-law mentality. If the judge really wanted to erase that spoiled behavior, perhaps she should have treated him like any average citizen, by sending him to jail for his crimes.