‘Affluenza’ Case Highlights Socioeconomic, Racial Disparities in Justice

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justicedctim11CHICAGO — In 2004, 21-year-old David Koschman lost his life in a drunken confrontation. Nearly 10 years later, his killer has only begun to face judicial consequences for the crime.

For seven years, Koschman’s case remained an unsolved homicide, despite several witnesses identifying Richard “R.J.” Vanecko as the assaulter who punched Koschman in the face after a long night of drinking, causing Koschman to fall backward and hit his head on the street. Koschman died 12 days later but the assaulter was never charged. A 2011 Chicago Sun-Times investigation led to the eventual indictment of Vanecko, nephew of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, in 2012.

A judge appointed former U.S. Attorney Dan K. Webb as special prosecutor to this case. However, before Vanecko was to stand trial, he entered into a plea deal, sentencing him to 60 days in jail in McHenry County, then 60 days of home confinement for involuntary manslaughter. In addition to 3o months of probation, Vanecko must also apologize to Koschman’s mother and pay her $20,000 in restitution. In Illinois, involuntary manslaughter usually carries a sentence minimum of two to five years.

Special Prosecutor Dan K. Webb

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Special Prosecutor Dan K. Webb

For some, something did not ring just with the  treatment that Vanecko’s case received. From how the Chicago Police Department did not follow up with Koschman’s death to Vanecko’s unusually light sentence, Vanecko’s case was seen as testimony to how our justice system favors the rich, the white and the well-connected above everybody else.

Now, the criminality of the wealthy has a name – and, to some critics, an excuse. Its name is “affluenza.” The term affluenza has turned the ire of the public and the media against affluent privilege and directed critical attention toward  socioeconomic and racial biases in our justice system.

“I would say there is no question until Webb was appointed, this case was buried because of his connection with Mayor Daley,” said Alan Mills, the legal director of the Uptown People’s Law Center.  “I believe he got a light sentence because of his connection with Mayor Daley as well. I think that if he had been a poor black person on the South Side, who had killed a white suburbanite, he would have been prosecuted for murder right away. ”

Whether Daley’s pull of the family’s clout in this city had any impact is a guess at this point. Still, according to the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission in 2010 found that even controlling for criminal history and other variables, African Americans were 1.8 times more likely and Latinos were 1.4 times more likely to be prosecuted in Cook County than whites.

“Is there a single standard of justice in Chicago, or do the rich and powerful — including their nephews — enjoy special treatment?” asked an editorial titled, “Koschman story is about equal justice” published in the Sun-Times July 25, 2011.

chicago logoAnother case that drew criticism and outrage at apparent rich, white privilege in the judicial system occurred in Texas.

A juvenile court sentencing in Fort Worth shocked the public and the media early February. Many believed that justice had not been served to the youth in question.

On the night of June 15, Texas teenager Ethan Couch stole beer from a local Walmart with some friends before going on a deadly joyride through Burleson, located south of Fort Worth. Couch, who was 16 at the time, already had run-ins with the law regarding alcohol possession and consumption.

He was driving 70 mph through a 40 mph with a BAC of 0.24, three times the legal limit. Mother and daughter Holly and Shelby Boyles, along with youth pastor Brian Jennings were standing on the side of the street to help Breanna Mitchell, whose SUV had broken down on the road. As Couch’s pickup truck swerved off the road and ploughed into the bystanders, two 15-year-old boys who had been riding in the bed of the Couch’s vehicle flew out onto the pavement. The four on the street were killed and one teen boy was paralyzed, leaving him without the ability to move or speak, and the other thrown teen sustained severe internal injuries and broken bones.

Couch escaped from the accident relatively unscathed.

Couch was charged with four accounts of intoxication manslaughter and two accounts of intoxication assault. The severity of the teen’s actions could have resulted in up to 20 years in jail for him. However, in a controversial move, State District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced Couch to no jail time, only 10 years of probation and an undisclosed amount of time at a rehabilitation facility. The treatment center’s details are undisclosed but his parents offered to pay for his treatment at a $450,000 a year facility near Newport Beach, California, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Couch’s case has attracted much public attention, not only for the tragic details of his crime, but for the uniqueness of his demographics in the juvenile justice system.

The Couch family is rich and white in a system where about 36 percent of juvenile court cases involve minority defendants, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention under the U.S. Department of Justice. Frederick Couch, the defendant’s father, is the owner of Cleburne Sheet Metal, a metalworks company that has an estimated yearly turnover of $15 million. The family’s wealth became a point of fixation for the defense counsel and the media.

The same judge who had presided over Couch’s case, Jean Boyd, had previously sentenced a 14-year-old African American boy, whose family was of lesser means economically, to 10 years in prison for being involved in the death of a man. The 14-year-old punched the man, causing him to hit his head on the pavement and consequently die from those wounds two days later.

Screenshot of an interview aired on CNN with Couch’s attorney, who explained his client had the mind of a 12-year-old

Screenshot of an interview aired on CNN with Couch’s attorney, who explained his client had the mind of a 12-year-old

“Affluenza” was the term used by Couch’s lawyers to cast the teen not as a killer but as a victim. They argued that the boy had a distorted relationship with his divorced parents who never taught him consequences. This, coupled with the family’s wealth, created an environment where the teen could not tell right from wrong, absolving him of complete responsibilities for the deaths.

People were quick to point out the Catch-22 of this defense. How can this youth be taught responsibility and morality when the unfettered nature of his upbringing liberates him from facing the consequences of his crimes even in a court of law?

It is true that youth do have tendencies to engage in risky behavior and possible less regard for consequences, according to Dr. Emma Adam, a professor of human development and social policy and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

“Brains during adolescence become more sensitive to rewards,” said Adam. “It kind of predisposes kids to seeking new experiences, seeking new sensations. This helps to account for some of the risk taking that occurs during adolescence and it’s related to kids trying new things, try getting involved with drugs, getting involved with alcohol.”

Adam says that at the same time that teen brains are craving new experiences, their frontal cortices have not fully matured. That’s the control center of the brain that helps with things like decision making and judgement.

“So you have this period of time where the engines are revved but but the brakes aren’t working,” said Adam.

Biologically, teenagers are developmentally different from adults. United States law has begun to reform with this in mind, and acknowledging that those developmental differences should matter when determining punishment for crimes committed by youth. The Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty and mandatory life sentence without possibility for parole for youth violate the 8th Amendment, which outlaws cruel and unusual punishment.

Couch’s case comes at this critical point in juvenile justice policy reform.

In light of this change of mindset, Diane Geraghty, professor of law at Loyola University and the director of the Civitas Childlaw Center, said Crouch’s sentence may be appropriate.

“Taking the full set of circumstances, not just the crime, but including the circumstances of the accused youth into account and figuring out the best way to respond to a horrible situation was really the purpose of the juvenile court system,” said Geraghty. “You can make the argument that that was exactly what was going on in the case. It was a good-faith effort to fulfill the promise of the juvenile justice system. It recognizes that kids can be rehabilitated. It makes an individual judgement about the needs of this particular youth. Is society going to be benefited by a long prison sentence? Or would they be better served by making sure this kid gets fixed in the way he needs to be fixed?”

In California, Assemblyman Mike Gatto, (D-Los Angeles) introduced a bill to state legislation that bans the use of the “affluenza” defense in court during trials or sentencing.

Gatto said in a news release published on CNN’s website, “Perhaps the notion of personal responsibility seems antiquated to some, but I think the majority of us believe that people should own up to their actions, and that criminals should not be able to use their wealth or privilege to lessen the severity of their sentences. Spoiled children shouldn’t be able to spoil the chances of victims to obtain justice when a criminal act has occurred.”

People like Gatto are taking the wrong message away from Couch’s case, said Geraghty.

“We really shouldn’t be focusing on the affluent kid who gets caught,” she said. “We should be focusing on the majority of kids and why is it that they’re poor and youth of color. Why are there so few affluent kids in the juvenile justice system? Why is there such racial and ethnic disproportionality?”

About 72 percent of youth detained in Texas are African American or Hispanic, even though these two races only make up 55 percent of the general population of Texan youth, according to a study published in 2005 by the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University.

This trend is not specific to Texas. It can be seen all around the nation. Even though the Supreme Court outlawed sentencing youth to life without possibility of parole, U.S. federal prisons still house adults who were tried before that federal mandate. Around 73 percent of the people serving life without parole for crimes they committed before they turned 18 are minorities, according to the website of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

“It’s not going to cure all ills of the justice system in one fell swoop and I recognize there are other problems to be addressed,” said Gatto in a phone interview. Gatto said that the “affluenza defense” bill is only one small step in rectifying an unbalanced system.

“It’s all a question of who we choose to prosecute.” said Mills. “If we diverted the same police resources to college campuses as they do to public housing, the prison system would look very different. There is in fact more illegal use of drugs on college campuses than there is in public housing but we don’t arrest upper middle class kids who go to places like Northwestern. We arrest young black kids that live in places like public housing because that’s who we’ve chosen to enforce the law against.”

In Illinois, an African American youth in the child welfare system is twice as likely to be arrested as their white counterparts, according to the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. Most youth who have been through the Department of Juvenile Justice come from neighborhoods where 87 percent of families live below the poverty line. It’s a combination of both socioeconomic disadvantage and race that affects a youth’s probability of ending up with a strict sentence.

A wide range of social, environmental and institutional factors come into play when trying to unravel the mystery of why poor and minority youths are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. It does not start in the the juvenile justice system, but according to Mills our judiciary has a big role.

“On every step of that way we disfavor poor black people and favor rich white people,” said Mills.

 Gatto said that he sees his effort to ban the use of “affluenza defense” in California courts is one small step toward decreasing prison inequality by taking away one excuse away from the rich. “What some defendants are claiming somehow that being raised in a privileged environment was a handicap, that it was comparable to being raised in a poor environment.”

The affluenza as an excuse simply does not ring true developmentally, according to Adams. You cannot argue there is a clear connection between being affluent and being unable to teach your children right from wrong.

“It may be more challenging to provide a nurturing environment in poverty because there are many factors that challenge good parenting, things that make it harder to be a good parent. High income environment parents have the freedom to get assistance around the home and they are not under the same degree of economic strain,” said Adams. “But across all income levels – from extreme poverty to high affluence and every income in between – there are parents that are able to provide a warm, nurturing environment.”

This story produced by the Chicago Bureau


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