Affluenza: The Criminal Justice Infection

In Texas, a 16-year-old stole liquor from Walmart and drove with a blood-alcohol level 3 times the legal limit. He killed 4 people. His sentence: 10 years’ probation and treatment (at a posh clinic). The lawyers defending the 16-year-old Texas youth argued that their client suffered from “affluenza” which usually refers an acquired irresponsibility based on years of extraordinary privilege. In other words, the young man had been so pampered
that he lacked the ability to appreciate the likely consequences of his actions. Really? My experience informs me that no 16-year-old African-American (even in Texas) would be treated as leniently.

Sadly, affluenza has so infected and perverted state criminal justice systems that lawyers confidently extract lenient treatment for their clients who are white, wealthy, employed, and come from “good” families. Typically, the young African-American or Hispanic accused is poor, unemployed, and from a broken home. The white client is more likely to go home. The minority client is more likely to go to prison. At the state level, there can be gross disparities from state to state, from counties within the same state and even within the same courthouse.

It is time to conduct a national review of sentencing procedures among and within the various states and to push for more enforceable fairness in sentencing. At the Federal level, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSG) has developed a maze of regulations designed to produce relative uniformity in sentencing for federal crimes.
Until something like the USSG is adopted by the states, the affluenza epidemic will continue. The burden will continue to be on local counsel to vigorously defend a client’s constitutional rights and aggressively examine whether the client is being treated fairly regardless of race or socio-economic status. We cannot accept what too often appears to be the norm.

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