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.