Affluenza is not an appropriate defense to excuse criminal behavior and irresponsible decisions

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Affluenza is not an appropriate defense to excuse criminal behavior and irresponsible decisions

Katelyn Bautista - Staff Writer, Photos by Rachel Nebel - Photographer

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When Tonya Couch—the mother of Ethan Couch, the Texas teenager who used “affluenza” as a defense in a fatal drunk-driving case—returned to the United States in January, the public stirred with renewed bitterness over the bogus psychological disorder that justified the severe debilitation of one person and the deaths of four others. Now, the U.S. pursues Ethan Couch, who fled to Mexico to escape punishment, for underage drinking and violating his probation. Ethan Couch’s 2013 trial popularized the term “affluenza” and described it as an affliction among children of rich families. The condition is characterized by an inability to understand the consequences of one’s actions due to financial privilege. Affluenza should have been deemed an insufficient legal defense and should be banned as a justification in future cases, as it is not a legitimate psychological condition and is merely an excuse that entitles the wealthy to get away with crimes with fewer repercussions.

In the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, affluenza is not recognized as a psychological condition. The term was coined by Jesse O’Neal in her book The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluenza, and it attracted attention due to its interesting wordplay—the combination of the words “affluence” and “influenza.” According to neuropsychologist Dr. Michelle London, the symptoms ofaffluenza—a lack of empathy for others, haughtiness, self-entitlement, thrill-seeking behavior, impulsivity and substance abuse—are characteristics typically associated with narcissists and sociopaths. Though such personality disorders may explain criminal behavior, they do not excuse crime. A person is not exempted from crime for being a sociopath or a narcissist; thus those suffering from affluenza should not be exempted either.

Taking this into consideration, affluenza is merely a convenient term that can be employed in court to excuse the privileged. At an early age, external stimuli shape every person’s sense of morality. Therefore, those allegedly suffering from affluenza can distinguish between right and wrong, they simply have no emotional investment in doing what was right. This is unfair because people who have a blatant disregard for law and morals can be excused for their wrongdoing due to their wealth while a poorer person who commits a crime similar would be immediately condemned a criminal and punished. Instead of favoring the wealthy, American courts must remain impartial in order to preserve the integrity of the judicial system.

The case of Ethan Couch reflects the corruption of the American justice system, which values money over morality. If the American justice system were to deem “affluenza” as a legitimate excuse for committing crimes in future court cases, they would be disregarding the American ideals of equality by exhibiting bias toward the wealthy and perpetuating classism. All people should be held accountable for their actions regardless of their wealth or status. In order for this to occur, the judicial branch must recognize its own corruption and take the proper measures to reform itself. Only then can justice reign supreme over U.S. courts.

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