As a criminologist, I have seen time and again that the process one is due and the justice one is accorded depend largely on one’s bank account.
Nowhere is this point more clear than in a recent decision by a Texas judge to sentence a 16-year-old boy to 10 years of probation and mental health counseling after the young man killed four people by driving drunk.
Let that sink in — probation and counseling for killing four people. Four people.
The defense attorneys argued that the boy suffered from "affluenza." Their reasoning was that he was coddled too much by his wealthy parents who have never held him accountable for his actions.
In contrast, the prosecutors argued that he should receive 20 years in prison. Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Richard Alpert told reporters that the teen showed no remorse during the two-hour proceedings. Alpert added he has little confidence the rehabilitation will reform the youth’s behavior. Nor should he.
According to police, the defendant (whose blood alcohol count was three times the legal limit for an adult) was going 70 miles-per-hour in his father’s Ford F-350 pickup in a 40 mph zone when he lost control and started a deadly chain of crashes that killed four people and gravely injured two others — one of whom suffered a traumatic brain injury and can no longer walk or talk.
To be sure, I’m not arguing for Hammurabic justice, but this kid has been held to no standard other than that which daddy’s money could purchase. The judge’s sentence is a slap in the face to the victims’ families. The judge, Jean Boyd, who promulgated this vulgar travesty, should be removed from the bench and disbarred.
Apologists have noted that the judge didn’t formally acknowledge the "affluenza" defense. She didn’t have to — her actions speak for themselves. These same apologists also point out that the boy would have likely received a sentence amounting to two years of actual incarceration. Therefore — as their reasoning goes — 10 years of probation allegedly gets him more time under court supervision.
Right. Ten years of more free-wheeling excess, having effectively gotten away with destroying many lives.
It’s probably wrong to expect the boy to exhibit any kind of contrition. He’s clearly been "socialized" into a world of near sociopathic hedonism where excesses are absolved through empty symbolic gestures.
Of course we permit our nation’s "one percenters" this luxury because we take our collective eye off the ball. We’re too cheaply bought.
In my own hometown there’s a small group of folks who own a great deal of rental property. The property is allowed to exist with very little oversight. It is also the locus of thousands of crimes every year — many of them violent. In fact, these few properties contribute so much to the local crime rate that the city would have almost half the crime it does if they didn’t exist.
These people (one in particular) make a big show of philanthropy. They give money to all kinds of noble and worthwhile causes. They are lauded for being great public citizens and assets to the community. Somehow, in the communal mind, a few magnanimous gestures gives them special dispensation to profit from the cauldron of crime and pain that they facilitate.
While I don’t equate my local negligent property owners with a murderous drunk, I do see a parallel in the treatment these two constituents regularly receive in the face of bad acts. Wealth equates to special access, special justice and special absolution.
To be sure, having wealth no more makes one bad than being poor makes one good. I recognize that most of the violent crime in America happens in poorer neighborhoods. I also recognize that we have a double standard when the inevitable comeuppance takes place. The wealthy have access to a philanthropic smoke screen. The poor have access to prison.
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column originally was published in February 2013.