Over the four-plus years I have maintained this blog, my opinions have evolved considerably in some areas. Some positions previously espoused with bold, brash naivety have been moderated over the years by equal measures of research and practice, while other sentiments have been strengthened by the same process. But I’ve never had the urge to flip-flop entirely on a point within the space of week. Until now.
Affluenza. I hadn’t heard the word until yesterday, when the internet erupted in outrage over the sentencing of a 16-year old white Texan named Ethan Crouch. (The county sheriff’s office released his name to the public, even though he is not legally an adult.) The adolescent was charged and convicted of killing four pedestrians while driving drunk (the actual charge was intoxication manslaughter), but instead of receiving the 20-year jail sentence sought by the state prosecutor, he was placed under probation for ten years. A psychologist called as a witness by the defense described the boy as suffering from “Affluenza.” The malaise of children of the rich, its symptoms include poor decision-making, substance abuse, irresponsibility, and so forth. And the child’s family is certainly rich. Various news agencies report his having a “lead counsel,” implying a team of lawyers. His parents can also clearly afford to hire a psychologist as an expert witness, and pay for their child’s rehabilitation in a Californian facility that will cost $450,000 USD a year.
On the surface, the story seethes with injustice, and when I read it my initial instinct was to recant my last entry in its entirety. But even if this case exposes in my thinking a consequence I find distasteful, it doesn’t negate the thinking. Crouch’s trial ultimately reinforces the message that children from wealthy backgrounds can be troubled too. Poverty and adverse familial circumstances have been offered, accepted and rejected as mitigating factors in criminal proceedings in the past. If we accept that rich children can be equally troubled, then it should come as no surprise that the psychological pitfalls of privilege will also be argued and occasionally considered in court. Would not considering such a defense then be an injustice? Can family circumstance reasonably be excluded from all judicial matters, with the emphasis placed on personal responsibility alone? Our societal outrage – my own outrage, for that matter – over this incident stems from an unfounded perception that all past pleas from the opposing perspective, that of poverty, have been summarily denied. That simply cannot be true, but as is the nature of media, only the most extreme, inflammatory cases are brought to the public’s eye, and this instance is one of the most extreme and most inflammatory.
Society’s desire to see miscreants jailed (or executed) is more an expression of its deeply-rooted need for vengeance and retribution than its wish for justice. There is plenty of evidence demonstrating that incarcerating young people is the worst of all possible corrective recourses, and Crouch will hopefully benefit from rehabilitation in a way that we wish all young offenders might. (Just not at our expense, of course.) Much depends on the objective of the rehabilitation. If Crouch could come to terms with the human consequences of his actions, if he could appreciate how his choices cost four people their lives and deeply, tragically, permanently affected the lives of the victims’ families, he might make different choices in the future. This would require empathy and understanding, the ability to think beyond himself – all social qualities, the acquisition of which are increasingly precluded on a structural level within American educational systems. There are few or no places remaining in the so-called “socialization process” of schooling where students can experience these values and consequently appreciate their collective benefits. Not surprisingly: apparently this costs $1232.88 a day, per kid. If only there were a cheaper alternative…
Hypothetical scenario: What if the judge had ordered 10 years of instruction and service in an el Sistema program? How many programs would be willing to accept someone convicted of a violent crime and integrate them into regular classes?