Effects of Income Inequality in the Legal System – The Conspicuous Case of Ethan Couch

Written by Fiverr member  http://fiverr.com/johns421unlv

Edited by Jeremy Nickel

The headline-churning case of the Texas judge who sided with defense attorneys for Ethan Couch, a wealthy teen who killed four people and critically injured two more in a horrific drunken driving crash, is generating some tough questions about how fair our legal system really is. How significant are socio-economic factors with regard to sentencing those who break the law?

Couch had stolen beer from a local Wal-Mart and was plowing through a forty mile an hour zone going seventy in his dad’s F-350 when he ran into a disabled car on the shoulder, as well as the four people with the terrible misfortune of standing near it.  The wreck also threw two of his friends from the back of the pick-up truck, paralyzing one and severely injuring the other.  His lawyers argued that the teen had never really had limits or discipline from his parents, and therefore could not be held accountable.

He simply didn’t understand the difference between right and wrong.

A paid psychologist for the teen coined the term “affluenza” in  his testimony, explaining that Couch’s parents, who are millionaires thanks to a family metal works business, instilled a sense of privilege in their son that led him to believe there would be no real consequences for his actions.

The judge agreed, opting to sentence him to ten years of probation and up to two years in a rehabilitation facility.

While the families of the victims were understandably upset on a personal level, there are many who see the sentence as indicative of a much larger problem in the legal system and society. The issue of whether money can buy freedom is one that has been around for a long time, possibly since the beginning of formal courts, but the explicit, tactical use of a defendant’s wealth as an excuse for breaking the law was exceptionally offensive.

It doesn’t take much in the way of research to find cases that show major discrepancies in sentencing between privileged offenders and those who are poor.

The case of Sharanda Jones is easy to find.  She was a single mom, also in Texas, who was arrested in a drug sweep that netted 105 people.  No drugs were actually found on Jones, but there were others who agreed to testify against her in exchange for reduced sentences in their own cases.  Charged with conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine and with no prior arrests, she was sentenced in 1999 to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  A tad harsh, no?

Fourteen years later, Jones is still in prison and there’s no sign that her situation will change anytime soon. There are more cases, countless others in fact, to prove that this injustice is in no way specific to Texas or to these particular defendants.  Wealthy criminal suspects are prosecuted far less often, found guilty in fewer instances and receive much lighter sentences when they are convicted than those without money.

The Ethan Couch case may have highlighted these inconsistencies in our legal system, but for those who are sitting in prison on disproportionate and draconian sentences, the differences have been clear for a very long time.


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