A reader asked for some thoughts on a recent case in Texas that has drawn national attention when the defense counsel used the child’s wealthy upbringing, combined with a history of substance abuse, poor parenting, and prior delinquent behavior, to argue for a sentence/disposition other than incarceration. The media focused in particular on an expert who testified concerning the child’s understanding of consequences for his behavior given his wealth. The term used to summarize the concept in the media was “affluenza,” which can refer to the lack of motivation of those who have inherited wealth (World English Dictionary).
According to several reports, the teenager, Ethan Couch, was driving drunk when he struck and killed four pedestrian bystanders. Children who were in Couch’s truck were also injured. After pleading guilty to multiple counts of involuntary manslaughter, Couch was sentenced to ten years of probation, including a lengthy period of residential rehabilitation. There appears to be no requirement of incarceration, so long as Couch adheres to the sentencing terms. Parties supplied information about the child’s economic status, the child’s mental health, parenting history, substance abuse history, legal history, and much more prior to the disposition decision.
Providing this extensive information about the child is proper and normal is most juvenile cases in Indiana. The court must learn as much as possible about the child and the child’s support system in order to determine a plan that will meet the child’s rehabilitative needs, including the child’s economic status. Certainly, it is also common to point out when a child is living in poverty and how that poverty may have impacted the child’s delinquent behavior, ability to participate in pro-social services and activities, and any parental supervision issues. The defense has a right to submit this information through an alternative predisposition report and through evidence, including testimony. It is also the norm for the defense to suggest a disposition or sentence.
In Indiana, if the court feels that the child’s rehabilitative needs center on substance abuse and mental health conditions that can be treated in a residential facility, a court may order that placement. Much was made in the Couch case that the California facility has equine therapy and other amenities. There are facilities here in Indiana, such as the Anderson Center, that are used by juvenile courts throughout the state that offer equine therapy as part of an intensive residential substance abuse program. There is a school of thought that part of the rehabilitative process should be exposure to new recreational activities, including art, music, and exercise, to build a repertoire of pro-social activities to replace the anti-social activities.
Finally, in the Couch case, the media focused on the child’s parents being ordered to pay for the rehabilitative services. In Indiana, pursuant to IC 31-40, the juvenile court must evaluate the parents’ ability to pay for rehabilitative services. The usual procedure requires the assigned probation officer to complete child support worksheets and provide health insurance documentation for the court’s consideration. When the parents are of means, the parents may shoulder a large financial burden for services and be required to coordinate services through providers approved by the health insurer. When the parents are living below the poverty line, they often will not be ordered to provide any financial support for services. In that case, the government would pay for the services — the county pays for detention, the Indiana Department of Child Services coordinates payment for residential placements, and the Indiana Department of Correction shoulders the cost of placements to their facilities.
Articles about the Couch case include:
- The Affluenza Society, New York Times, by James McAuley
- ‘Affluenza’ in Texas Incites Anger, Lawsuits and Call for Jail Time, Los Angeles Times, by Molly Hennessey-Fiske and Michael Muskal
- Teenager’s Sentence in Fatal Drunk-Driving Case Stirs ‘Affluenza’ Debate, New York Times, by Manny Fernandez and John Schwartz
The author has no personal knowledge of the Couch case and, because of that lack of personal involvement, makes no comment as to the whether the outcome was just.