Nel's New Day

December 18, 2013

Affluenza in the U.S.

Have you ever had a case of affluenza? If you aren’t wealthy, chances are that you escaped this disorder. But 16-year-old Ethan Couch suffers from this horrible problem. In a recent Texas case, psychologist Gary Miller testified that the teenager who killed four pedestrians while driving drunk—three times the legal limit for adults in the state—should be excused for his behavior because of his affluenza. Couch and several of his seven passengers in a pickup truck got the alcohol by stealing two cases of beer from a local Wal-Mart. In addition to the alcohol, Couch’s blood test noted valium.

According to the psychologist, Couch’s condition is caused by a child’s sense of entitlement that make them irresponsible because parents, usually wealthy ones, fail to set appropriate boundaries. Miller told the story of Couch’s dysfunctional life with neglectful, divorced parents who failed to discipline him for driving when he was 13 or being found two years later in a pickup with a naked unconscious 14-year-old girl. “This kid has been in a system that’s sick,” Miller said. “If he goes to jail, that’s just another sick system.”

Fortunately for Couch,  Judge Jean Boyd understood the terrifying disorder and gave Couch ten years of probation for the deaths although prosecutors asked for the maximum 20-year prison sentence. The parents are sending their son to a rehab facility in California that costs $450,000 a year. During his year there, he’ll participate in horseback riding, yoga, and art therapy. Miller’s justification for the ten years of probation was that Couch always got everything he wanted. Miller has succeeded in reinforcing Couch’s “anything-I-want” lifestyle.

The concept of affluenza is not new. Jessie O’Neill, granddaughter of a former president of General Motors, popularized the term in the late 1990s in her book, The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.  Over a decade ago, documentary filmmaker John de Graaf and Duke Economics Professor Thomas Naylor explain in Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, “It’s as if we Americans, despite our intentions, suffer from some kind of Willpower Deficiency Syndrome, a breakdown in affluenza immunity.” But only Miller seems to be exonerating Couch’s crime because of the disorder.

Last year, Judge Boyd sentenced a 14-year-old black male to ten years in juvenile detention after he punched a man who died after fallingl and hitting his head on the pavement. It’s obvious that this teenager didn’t suffer from affluenza. According to the judge, he needed punishment and personal responsibility for his action. He also didn’t have the money for an expensive attorney.

Both the teenagers pled guilty to their acts; they just went in different directions. One of them is white, and the other black. Nationwide, blacks represent 26 percent of juvenile arrests, 44 percent of detained youth, 46 percent of youth judicially waived to criminal court, and 58 percent of youth in state prisons. Minorities receive harsher treatment in the juvenile justice system from arrest and detention through adjudication and incarceration even if they allegedly committed the same crime as white youth.

For all youth, however, the increasing prevalence of privatized prisons means greater overcrowding and violence toward the incarcerated. Putting delinquent youth together makes them more deviant and more of a threat to themselves and others in a situation called “peer delinquency training.” At the same time, being in prison aggravates mental illness.

Couch may benefit from his mandated rehabilitation, but the 14-year-old black teenager sentenced to ten years won’t have any of this benefit. Like other kids in prison, he will face greater risk of self-injury and suicide—two to four times more than the general youth population. Threats of suicide create greater danger to the youth by putting them in solitary confinement.

Even if prisoners survive, they will lack education and training when they get out. About 43 percent of them won’t return to school after they are released, and two-thirds to three-quarters of those who enroll will drop out within a year. The result is high unemployment, poor health, shorter life spans, low income, and threats to public safety. Those imprisoned for delinquency are less likely to grow out of this than those who “age out” through maturation and experience.

Prison may be one answer for violent or high-risk youth, but up to 70 percent of young people in prisons, jails and detention centers are serving time for nonviolent offenses.

Blacks constitute almost one million of the 2.3 million prisoners in the United States and are incarcerated at almost six times the rate of whites. Although the U.S. has five percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. If blacks and Hispanics were imprisoned at the same rate as whites, the country’s prison and jail population would decrease by 50 percent. Current trends, however, indicate that one in three black males born today will spend time in prison.

About 14 million whites and 2.6 million blacks report using an illicit drug. Although five times as many whites as blacks admit using drugs, ten times as many blacks are imprisoned for drug offenses as whites. Blacks represent 12 percent of the total population of drug users but 59 percent of those imprisoned for drug offenses. In addition, blacks serve almost as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites to for a violent offense (61.7 months).

In 2002, blacks constituted more than 80 percent of the people sentenced under the federal crack cocaine laws and served substantially more time in prison for drug offenses than did whites. Yet more than two-thirds of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic.

A recent study by economists Anna Aizer and Joseph J. Doyle, Jr. shows that juvenile detention is a highly counterproductive. The United States spends about $6 billion on juvenile corrections each year (about $88,000 per bed), despite evidence that other strategies might be more effective. Illinois, for instance, is using electronic monitoring and well-enforced curfews as alternatives to detention for a number of nonviolent crimes. While these types of alternative punishments can often do just as much to deter crime, they don’t do nearly as much long-term damage to the kids involved.

Eleven states passed laws that keep most young offenders out of adult jails and prisons, and eight states passed laws that alter mandatory minimum sentencing for young offenders charged as adults. Laws in four other states enabled juvenile courts to take cases in which juveniles would automatically been tried as adults.  Twelve other states have made it more likely that juveniles won’t be transferred into the adult system. 


In the last few decades, the number of girls confined to youth prisons has been rising, and many of them are subjected to sexual assault from guards and other prisoners. The number of women in prison, disproportionately women of color, is increasing at nearly double the rate for men. Again they face gendered violence.

The good news is that youth incarceration is declining—41 percent from its peak in 1995. In 2010, 70,792 young people were behind bars, compared to 107,637 fifteen years earlier. The sharpest decline came in the last five years. The bad news is that the decline is mostly with white youth. That’s affluenza.


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