In most Western countries, there are human rights laws that protect people from many forms of discrimination, be it discrimination based perceived race, sex/gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity and age. The level of protection provided to marginalized groups varies from country to country, but in most there is one group that has absolutely no protection from discrimination: the working class. This has been highlighted by a recent case in which a young teen, Ethan Couch, avoided a jail sentence after not only severely injuring two people, but also killing four others. The 16-year-old defendant did whilst driving with a blood alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit. The reason he didn’t get a jail sentence? He was spoiled and didn’t that there were consequences to his actions whilst growing up in an affluent family. His lawyers claimed Couch ‘suffered’ from ‘affluenza’, though frankly, it seems as though the six people he either killed or injured are the ones who are suffering from Couch’s affluenza. In laymen’s terms: he got off because he was rich. It was a spoiled brat defense, and apparently, in America at least, it is a reasonable defence.
Couch’s legal team brought in a psychologist who stated that Couch was the product of poor parenting and immense wealth that created an environment where he didn’t understand that his actions have consequences. As a result, Couch felt like he could do anything and not have to answer for it. The psychologist even offered an example, stating that less than a year prior he had attempted to rape a 14-year-old girl who was passed out in the backseat of a car. He was caught (that time), but no punishment was forthcoming. From this experience Couch apparently learned that rules don’t apply to him. Therefore, according to the lawyer and psychologist, because Couch got away with attempted sexual assault, he should also get away with killing four people and injuring two more. And, yes, the lawyer actually did bring forth evidence of an attempted sexual assault and the judge saw this as evidence suggesting that Couch should get a lighter sentence, not a stiffer one. As a side note, if you don’t think rape culture exists, consider the fact that a lawyer actually thought it was reasonable to present evidence of an attempted rape his client committed to get a lighter sentence, and then consider the fact that this female judge, after hearing that the defendant had attempted to rape, a 14-year-old girl who was passed out, actually gave him a light sentence. This is not surprising given how the American Justice system treats 14-year-old, rape victims.
What the psychologist and judge likely failed to realize is that the best way to make Couch realize that he is accountable for his actions is to make him accountable for his actions. The best cure for ‘affluenza’? Jail. It cures it every time. As soon as you are put behind bars, you realize that your actions do have consequences. But rather than treating Couch’s ‘affluenza’, the judge in the case decided to facilitate it by opting to sentence Couch to ten years of probation, rather than the minimum two-year prison sentence. Scott Brown, the lead lawyer for Couch (because when you have a legal team, rather than a single lawyer as most of us get, you need a ‘lead’ lawyer), claims that the 10-year probation sentence allows Couch to stay in the state’s care longer as he could have been released after only two years otherwise. What he fails to note is that the maximum sentence for one count of intoxication manslaughter carries a 20-year sentence. Since Couch had 4 counts, this would have allowed the state to keep him in their custody for the rest of his life if they so desired, by giving him four consecutive 20-year sentences as opposed to the more common concurrent sentences. Granted, this may have been excessive given his age, but the point is that if the courts wanted Couch under the state’s supervision for longer than two years, they could have done that without letting him off with probation.
This scenario essentially demonstrates how legal system coddles the wealthy whilst the working class, who can’t even afford a single lawyer let alone a team of lawyers, often get much harsher sentences for victimless crimes, and the courts seldom take into consideration the psychological impact of a working-class person when handing sentences for minor violations like marijuana possession. If, for example, somebody suffers from depression or chronic back pain and their treat their chronic pain with a little chronic, then they will, at least in the case of many Americans, face a jail sentence. If the courts are going to allow a defense like this, then they must allow similar defenses for working-class people. Perhaps, because they are being perpetually exploited by the capitalist system, a working-class person may feel they are no longer invested in the world around them and the consequences of their actions don’t mean anything to them. Would a court allow such a defense?
Jeff Mizanskey, who had never committed a violent crime, was busted with 5 pounds of marijuana in his car. The marijuana, it turns out, belonged to his friend who had not told Mizanskey about the purchase he had recently made. Regardless, Mizanskey was sentence to life in prison for possession of marijuana. This was in 1993. He is still in prison today. Nobody was killed. Nobody was harmed. He didn’t even know the marijuana was in his vehicle. When the courts put a man in prison for life for something which he didn’t even know about, something he had no reasonable ground to suspect, but fail to put a killer in jail for even so long as a day, there is a problem.
Chelsea Manning was witness to corruption and barbaric actions of a government during war time, and turned whistle-blower with the hopes of bringing some much needed transparency to military actions being taken in the Middle East. For forcing her ‘superiors’ and the government to be accountable for their actions, Manning was sentenced to 25-years in prison. Nobody was killed as a result of what Manning did. Edward Snowden, likewise, is living in Russia right now for fear that he will be imprisoned for revealing illegal and unconstitutional wiretaps. Nobody was killed as a result of what Snowden did, but the American government forced him into hiding. A court system cannot be taken seriously when it punishes a whistle-blower with 25-years in prison for something that brought no harm to anybody and likely saved lives, but fails to put a person who killed four people behind bars.
The tragic thing about this is that the court system is not only facilitating the criminal behaviour of the rich, it is minimizing the victims of these crimes, often working-class people. The victims in Couch’s case were youth pastor Brian Jennings, aged 43; chef Breanna Mitchell, aged 24; nursing student Shelby Boyles, age 21; and her mother, homemaker Hollie Boyles, age 52. With working-class backgrounds, it is clear that these people did not have the affluent life that Couch was comforted with. The courts paid little attention to their lives and gave them no sincere consideration in allowing what is being called a ‘spoiled brat’ defense to succeed. Their lives ended, and rather than awareness, wealthy people learned this lesson: don’t worry about what you do to the working class. The courts don’t care.
Couch didn’t even bother to apologize in court about what he’d done, and considering the lenient treatment the court is offering him, it seems unlikely that he will realize that his actions have consequences any time soon. The prisons, it seems, are too full with whistle-blowers and pot smokers to make room for killers like Couch. Couch will get ‘counseling’ while Manning and Mizanskey will spend life behind bars. Is the justice system working? If you’re rich, the answer is yes. If you are a member of the working class, expect a disproportionate jail sentence should you commit a crime, and if you are the victim of one, expect the court to rub salt in your wound or piss on your grave, depending on the outcome of your victimization.