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by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

For the most part, I have always regarded reading as a relatively passive and harmless activity—something to stimulate the mind and possibly spark the imagination. But reading an article that appeared on a news-feed from the Washington Post recently reminded me that reading can occasionally raise your heart rate and spike your blood pressure to unhealthy levels.

This reminder came in the form of an article about a young Texas man named Ethan Couch who, at age 22, finds himself back in jail for breaking the terms of his probation—again. According to the article, when Mr. Couch was 16, high on booze and valium, he drove his father’s pick-up truck straight into a group of people trying to help a stranded driver on a Texas road, killing four and injuring several of the passengers in the pick-up truck he was driving.

The body count alone would be enough to spike anyone’s blood pressure, but here’s the thing—this kid’s defense at his 2013 sentencing was that his parents spoiled him and this wealthy upbringing was the thing that kept him from fully understanding the consequences of his actions—aka “affluenza.”

In other words, society really shouldn’t punish the poor lad for swallowing pills, getting drunk, and killing and maiming people in a vehicle because he was too wealthy and too spoiled and unable to think of anyone but himself. Apparently, the judge sympathized because the kid got 10 years of probation during which he was to remain drug- and alcohol-free.

But as you might suspect, being wealthy and spoiled, Mr. Couch didn’t meet the terms of his probation and we know this from a December 2015 video on social media that showed Mr. Couch drinking in violation of his probation. The prospect of punishment for violating parole prompted mother and son to flee to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico as opposed to showing up at his bail hearing. In a month, the authorities figured out where they were when the two fugitives had a pizza delivered to their condo.

For all of this, another judge sentenced Mr. Couch to a mere 720 days of jail time (180 days for each person killed) along with new probation terms. After getting out of jail (not state prison) in 2018, Mr. Couch, in addition to having a curfew and a GPS monitor that’s since been removed, has had to remain drug- and alcohol-free, which he was unwilling to do and is why he’s now back in the news.

I should say at the outset that if the goal was to rehabilitate the lad and instill in him some sense of the magnitude of what he did, I can think of no better place than a medium-security prison where Mr. Couch would have ample time to detox, wrestle with the devastation he caused, and get over his sense of entitlement. But that opportunity was missed and is still being missed.

I mention it all because it captures exactly why so many people are angry over inequality and privilege. If it was a poor kid, especially a minority kid, I seriously doubt that a judge would have handed down a sentence of probation, especially with a body count of four dead and several injured. Hell, we’ve got poor kids doing years in state prison for holding a little weed, but the wealthy kid mows down some innocent people on a roadside and “affluenza” becomes a thing.

For all I know “affluenza” might be a valid defense and it might even explain why so many horrendous things can take place at a frat party and none of it will impact a wealthy lad’s future prospects of sitting on the Supreme Court. But if we’ve got to accept “affluenza” as a defense or even a justification, then the same has to apply to the opposite of “affluenza”—namely crushing poverty and hopeless despair.

That’s not too much to ask from a society that values equality under the law or says it does. After all, if someone can’t appreciate the consequences of their actions because they’ve been spoiled and never told no, then the same holds true for someone whose life is characterized by indifference, deprivation, and never being told yes. Both prospects are frightening and for those of us in between the extremes, maybe this fear is the only thing that is equal. n

Mayoral Musings