John Stuart Mill
Last week a 16-year-old boy named Ethan Couch was sentenced to 10-years probation for killing four people while driving drunk. His defense team claimed Ethan wasn’t capable of making rational decisions due to the amount of wealth he grew up with. I (like many of you) was outraged: another case of wealth being able to buy justice.
We’ve all heard the stories about hedge fund managers and investment bankers being able to bend the rules they weren’t breaking without any fear of serious criminal prosecution. When we hear about these crimes our blood boils and the public outrage machine cranks up. These cases are usually so nuanced that by the time the nightly news anchor starts talking about derivatives, insider trading, and collusion our collective eyes glaze over.
This was different; the four lives lost were real, concrete, tangible human beings who had families and friends. This ruling is a continuing indictment of the American jurisprudence system. We have a legal system that benefits the privileged. The national outcry is long overdue. Until we acknowledge this problem in a public way we will continue to get these kinds of sentences.
I don’t want revenge for this verdict. Instead, I want a justice system that views the poverty of juvenile defendants through the same lens it viewed the affluence of this kid. Ethan was given a second chance because a judge deemed his family and his upbringing worthy of it. As a nation we don’t show this kind of outrage when underprivileged kids find themselves on opposite side of rulings like this.
Let’s be honest and admit we have a tiered system of justice. There’s an old cliché that says it’s better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent. We’re the only industrialized western country that executes its citizens. The disparities you hear civil rights leaders talk about aren’t figments of a collective imagination. Class and race are factored into the adjudication of justice more than some of us are willing to admit.