Headlines across the country have blared with news that a wealthy teenager from Texas was sentenced to seven years probation rather than jail time following a deadly car accident over the summer that killed four people. The teen’s defense attorney argued that he was the victim of affluenza, meaning that his rich parents failed to set proper boundaries and raised him in an environment without consequences.
The defense team argued that because of his background it would be wrong to punish the teenager severely now, given that his entire life had been free of such punishment and that he had never been forced to learn that his actions could lead to such severe penalties.
The judge in the case, Jean Boyd, accepted the guilty plea which means that the teen will likely spend a substantial time in his expensive California drug treatment center which costs $1,200 a day. The facility includes an equine therapy program, yoga and massages for its patients. The judge noted that while prison also includes access to drug and alcohol treatment programs, she believed that the facility where the teen is currently residing would be a better fit.
Many have expressed outrage that it appears the teenager’s wealth has helped him avoid what would normally be serious punishment for his crime. It was back in June that the teenager was driving his parent’s car with a blood alcohol level nearly three times the state’s legal limit. The teen slammed his car into a group of other vehicles that had stopped to help a stranded driver. The collision, at 70 miles per hour, left four people dead and nine others seriously injured.
Some have noted that in most cases of intoxicated manslaughter the perpetrators receive between five and 15 years in prison, with 20 years as the maximum punishment in Texas. In this case, the teen will walk away only with seven years probation. His defense attorney has attempted to convince the public that the punishment is just given that he faces up to 10 years in jail if he ever breaks the conditions of his probation.
Critics of the sentence have pointed out that just because the teen’s parents failed to draw proper boundaries in the past should not mean that he escapes punishment now. Moreover, these critics say that some day in the future the teenager will point back to the recent case as further proof that his wealth has helped him avoid taking responsibility for his actions, asking again for leniency.
These same critics have pointed out that it’s nothing knew for defense attorneys to blame a person’s upbringing for their criminality. However, most such cases involve poor children who suffered through horrible childhoods. Additionally, many judges see through the defense strategy and sentence them to prison anyway. In this case, blaming the teen’s actions on his wealthy but disconnected parents appears to have worked.
Though this teenager managed to evade prison, his parents will likely not get off cheaply. Reports indicate that the family is currently facing a $20 million civil lawsuit filed by the families of those killed and injured in the car accident. The victims say that even though he avoided the punishment they hoped he would receive under the criminal system, they hope to dispense justice in a civil case and hit his parents hard in the pocketbook.
Source: “Rich kid gets probation for drunk-driving deaths. His defense? ‘Affluenza.’,” by Patrik Jonsson, published at CSMonitor.com.