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The injustice of the affluenza defense

by Michele Gilman
March 6, 2014
Recently, a Texas Judge sentenced to probation a wealthy teenager who killed four people while driving drunk.  Instead of jail, the teenager will be serving his time in a rehabilitation center that resembles a luxury spa.  Public outrage erupted that the teenager’s defense of “affluenza” seemed to have worked.
His lawyer argued that affluenza, or growing up rich, caused the teen to fail to understand the consequences of his actions.  When this story broke, many people bitterly hypothesized that if the teenager had been poor, the outcome would have been different.  
But we do not have to speculate.  The truth is that poverty is no defense to wrongful conduct.  The truth is that a poor child similarly charged would not have the same chance at rehabilitation.    
Consider the Supreme Court case of Miller v. Alabama.   In that case, Evan Miller, a fourteen year old, beat his drug-dealing neighbor with a bat and then set fire to his trailer.  At the time, Miller was high on drugs and alcohol provided by the neighbor.  The neighbor died, and Miller was sentenced to life without parole.  
Reviewing reams of emerging science about the teenage brain, the Supreme Court concluded in 2012 that mandatory sentences of life without parole for teenagers constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution.  As the Court explained, the teenage years are marked by “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”
Moreover, the Court reasoned that a mandatory sentence strips the judge of the ability to consider a teenage defendant’s family and home environment, “no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”
Miller’s upbringing was particularly pathological.  His stepfather beat him.  His mother was a drug addict who neglected him.  He was in and out of foster care.  He attempted suicide four times; the first time when he was kindergarten-aged.
The entire picture was tragic.  Still, the Court confirmed that it was “beyond question” that Miller deserved severe punishment for the murder.  In other words, while poverty may explain a defendant’s conduct, it is no excuse.
So, why was a child’s wealth an excuse for his heinous, reckless conduct?  The Texas judge’s sentence confirms our worst suspicions about the widening economic gap between the haves and have-nots.
Currently, the poverty rate for children is an alarming twenty-two percent.   While the affluenza teen serves time in a California therapy center costing his parents a reported $450,000 a year, his low-income counterparts are not so lucky.   The vast majority of children in the juvenile justice system are from low-income families, and they are disproportionately minority.  
Over ninety-five percent of arrested youth are accused of non-violent crimes.  Poor kids are less likely to have an attorney and more likely to be sentenced to confinement than children of means.  On any given day, over 90,000 juveniles are in confinement, including 10,000 children in adult detention.  Throughout the system, juvenile offenders are often held in conditions that are dangerous and abusive, where they lack adequate access to education, physical or mental health care, or supportive services.  Moreover, children who are funneled into the adult criminal justice system are likely to receive no educational services at all, and they face assaults on their physical safety.  High rates of recidivism result… and the cycle continues.  
That is why the Public Justice Center’s work to improve educational outcomes for low-income children and to reform the juvenile justice system is so important.  For example, the PJC has worked to ensure that homeless children maintain their schooling.  Likewise, as part of the Just Kids Partnership, the PJC has fought Maryland’s practice of keeping juveniles who are charged as adults in adult confinement.  Every day, the PJC fights to dismantle poverty and to give all kids a chance to fulfill their potential.  
Justice should not be the province of the rich.  Justice should be for all.
Michele Gilman is the current board president of the Public Justice Center.
We want to hear from you! You can be a part of this dialogue. Your thoughts, reactions, and questions will greatly enrich our conversation. Email them to Jiyoon at kimj@publicjustice.org with the subject line “Let's talk about this.”   You can also follow this conversation on Facebook or tweet @Publjusticecntr with your responses using the national hashtag #talkpoverty.

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