Affluenza defense highlights disparity in U.S. sentencing

One of the strangest court rulings of the year came in December when a Texas judge sentenced a white boy from an affluent neighborhood to 10 years of probation after he was convicted of driving drunk, killing four people and leaving another teen with a severe brain injury.

The prosecutor had asked for a 20-year sentence.

Instead, the judge issued probation, beginning with a year at a plush rehab center in California that will cost the boy's parents $432,000.

The sentence set off a national debate about crime, race, wealth and punishment in America, which incarcerates far more people than any country in the world, both in shear number and in per capita terms.

Adding fuel to the fire was another controversial decision the same judge had made a year earlier. Judge Jean Boyd had sentenced a 14-year-old black boy to 10 years behind bars for punching a man who then struck his head on the pavement and died.

The boy was participating in the trendy but brutal game of "knockout," where young people choose an unsuspecting victim and then punch that person in the head.

Neither boy intended to kill anyone, but both did. One goes to an exclusive rehab center while the other enters the Texas youth detention system for a minimum of five years.

All of which illustrates what poor people and black people have suspected for years — that the justice system is stacked against them in multiple ways.

Studies show that when black and white criminals have similar criminal histories, or no histories at all, blacks generally receive tougher sentences than whites.

Aside from what may be unconscious racism, poor defendants tend to receive poorer representation in the court system, often from under-funded and overworked public defenders.

The wealthy family in Texas was able to hire a legal team of experienced lawyers and experts to testify on his behalf. One of the paid witnesses was a psychologist who testified the young man suffered from "affluenza," a controversial malady that purportedly left him feeling "entitled" and above the law.

Some skeptics have since called it the "spoiled-brat defense."

Critics quickly responded that children who grow up with family violence, poverty and instability should have a similar defense.

One person on Twitter suggested it be called "poortussis."

For poor whites, blacks and Latinos, the U.S. on whole seems to have a separate justice system, one that produces harsher sentences for the disadvantaged.

As income disparities continue to grow in the U.S., it will be interesting to see if sentencing disparities grow accordingly.

Texas, for instances, is among the states with the highest income inequality in the U.S., meaning the gulf between the wealthy and the poor is greater there. It is also among the states with the highest incarceration rate.

Maine, meanwhile, has the lowest incarceration rate in the U.S. and is among the states with the lowest levels of income inequality.

The Texas "affluenza" case sentencing is an extreme example of what is generally a more subtle problem in our criminal justice system: poor people and minorities are generally dealt with more severely at all stages of the criminal justice system.

That should discomfort us all.

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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It's all about the money. If

It's all about the money. If Dad's got enough of it, the kid gets anything he wants. Pretty pathetic but I'll bet I'm not far off.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

I only have one question..............

How the hell, did the judge get away with such an unbelievably ridiculous ruling. It even sounds like something a defense lawyer would come up with. I mean this kid killed four people. It just seems so wrong. Has anyone checked the judges bank account balance? Has it risen for no particular reason lately? That would seem to me, a more logical explanation....................

RONALD RIML's picture

Calm down, Frank.......

If you think this 'Affluenza' Ruling isn't going to be appealed by the State - you must be in the same 'Alternate Universe' that the Judge was in.

It's the job of the 'Defense' to come up with anything they think will fly - that's what they're paid for. Hopefully the Appellate Court will 'Ground' the Dingbat Defense Theory.....

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Ron, I understand what your saying, but..............

I know that defense lawyers are paid to come up with these bizarre ideas. I would think the judge in this case would have seen through this and decided appropriately. I guess it's that this case needs to go to an appeals court is whats bothering me. You'll have to admit, there have been some unreal decisions made by judges lately. By the way, as far as him coming from a wealthy family. I come from a wealthy family, and thirty years ago, I got popped after a few to many. My family let me pay the price. No sympathy on their part...............

RONALD RIML's picture

Has it really been 'Lately?'

Money has always 'talked' while B.S. walked....... If you let it.

And as a Cop - I learned to not let it get to me.

Karma gets 'em in the end.... and not always with Vaseline...... ;)

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

I'd be interested in knowing

I'd be interested in knowing who was Governor of Maine and who was POTUS when this judge was appointed. That, in itself, would speak volumes about his 'judging' skills and inclinations.

Considering he's elected and

Considering he's elected and in Texas, the party of the Governor of Maine and the President are irrelevant. Especially to Texas, which is currently one of the reddest and most Tea Party friendly states in the Union. But hey, Republican "elected" by 100% of his district? Speaks volumes indeed, but not in the way I think you were trying to paint it. If, that is, you are suggesting his party affiliation was a determining factor in his decision.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Ya know, I thought of that

Ya know, I thought of that Maine Governor thing after I had posted that. Totally irrelevant, as you stated. Momentary lapse of reason on my part, I'd say. Not surprised at all to find out a republican was involved. As I've said many times, Wayne, I am not and never have been a republican. If truth be known, both parties suck. They're both made up of crooks and scoundrels. There are a couple of good guys on each side, but for the most part, it's a den of thieves.

Not all are thieves. A lot

Not all are thieves. A lot of them are self centered egoists and a few are sociopaths.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Those are the good ones; the

Those are the good ones; the rest are worse.

RONALD RIML's picture

We Cops merely opined

that some folks had a higher "A-Hole Quotient" than others.......

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Been that way since Cain

Been that way since Cain decided to settle his differences with Abel by altering his life span.


Elected, not appointed.

Judge Jean Boyd was last elected in 2010, winning 100% of the vote in the Tarrant county Republican primary, and 100% of the vote in the general election.


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