Last week this story of 16-year-old Ethan Couch who received the cushy 10-year probation sentence for killing four people hit the press, my immediate reaction was probably the same as the majority of people who read the story, pure unadulterated disgust.
My thoughts then quickly jumped to how this would be viewed from the opposing side. Imagine this, if a young, black, extremely poor teenage boy from a broken, abusive, drug-infested home/neighborhood were to do the exact same thing, and gave defense that he was so broken that he didn’t know any better, would that defense work?
Probably not, as evidenced by the massive prison population filled with offenders who have such lousy backgrounds but don’t have the means to hire such creative lawyers.
As outlined in this blog post by Jessica Ann Mitchell of OurLegaci.com, Please Excuse Davontaye, He Suffers From Povertenza,
“…There are millions of under-privileged youth across America, that have lived under the worst conditions imaginable. They’ve witnessed murders, endured hunger, and survived sexual abuse. However, upon committing a crime, they are handed down the harshest prison sentences imaginable.”
I’ve long thought that in an ideal world we could rehabilitate the majority of our offenders, rather than locking them up. And that includes someone like Ethan Couch. Although not broken in the same ways as poor urban youth, he is also a victim of a tragically divisive society, he’s just on the other end.
I realize that idea may anger a lot of people. After all, he’s going to be housed in a rehabilitation center costing about $450,000 a year paid for by his parents (jeebus, I cannot even imagine having that kind of expendable income!) and will certainly be enjoying his daily life way, WAY more than the average prison inmate. And for sure, this is an unfair advantage. And maybe he will even become rehabbed, maybe he will learn to feel remorse for his actions and come to understand his failings. Is he just lucky? Or is he just ridiculously privileged?
Is that fair? Is it preferable to send him to prison along with all the other violent offenders and let him suffer along with them?
I’d say, in the current state of our legal system, yes that would be the most fair thing to do.
However, if we are talking about an ideal world, maybe we could use Ethan Couch to serve as an example of what should be done for ALL violent offenders.
If Ethan Couch deserves leniency for his parents failing to teach him the difference between right and wrong, then don’t children from poor, urban settings where violence, drugs, and sexual abuse run rampant also deserve some leniency?
Prisons are a huge machine, churning out more offenders every time they are released. As a society, we need to examine the idea that prisons are not working. They are NOT keeping people from re-offending. They are just buying us time until the offenders get out, more hardened, unprepared to deal with life on the outside and then commit more crimes, as part of a harsh, non-working system that has continued to fail us.
The only problem is that rehabilitation will cost us money, rather than making money, as prisons do. Instead of valuing life, we value money, and so we will never put the violent offenders lives as a top priority, unless they look like Ethan Couch.
Even though Ethan Couch, who looks like the nice white boy next door, got a break for being a rich white boy, rather than continue to be disgusted that he got a break and insist that he be locked up, perhaps we should consider that his type of punishment should be more widespread.
Practically speaking, I know that won’t happen. But wouldn’t it be nice? Imagine the world we could live in if we viewed people who are broken as those who need help rather than punishment.