“Affluenza” controversy sparks terrific debate

James McAuley

By Alan Bean

The debate over the Ethan Couch case isn’t over.  It’s all about the sixteen year-old who killed four people with his Ford F-350 truck while driving with  a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit.  The prosecution was asking for twenty years, but Judge Jean Boyd gave the kid ten years of probation with the understanding that he would receive treatment at a posh California rehab center at the cost of $450,000/year.  During the sentencing hearing, defense counsel argued that Couch was a victim of “affluenza”.

James McAuley, a Harvard senior currently studying as a Marshall scholar at Oxford, sees the self-absorbed, amoral Couch as a symptom of white-flight myopia. McAuley is in his mid-twenties, but he has thought long and hard about the spirituality of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.  (The New York Times published his insightful piece on Dallas circa 1963 last month.)  Here’s the heart of his argument:

The Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs are a prime example of this particular strain of “affluenza”: seclusion and, through it, exclusion is their lifeblood. After the Dallas Independent School District was initially desegregated in the 1970s, a case overseen for decades by the liberal Democratic judge Harold Barefoot Sanders Jr., white residents began to flee farther and farther to the north, establishing new settlements in mesquite brush where previously only forgotten farms had been. There, with a consumerist bravado later immortalized in Michael Elmgreen’s and Ingar Dragset’s “Prada Marfa” sculpture, islands of shopping centers were installed in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by oceans of subdivisions.

Driving north from Dallas or Fort Worth, you will eventually arrive at an outpost of the Cheesecake Factory, the only conceivable end for a rainbow that never was. There, at the crossroads of bourgeois comfort and ennui, these plastic fiefs — confederations of chain restaurants, multiplex cinemas and roadside churches — compose a ring of suburbs that are masterpieces in the art of urban control. In 2011, Money magazine recommended moving to the suburb of Keller, Tex., because, if you did, “you’d never know there had been a recession.”

Such was the milieu in which Ethan Couch was raised. His father’s heavily gated home just outside of Keller, off a thoroughfare called Confederate Park Road, is a veritable fortress of Austin stone, set on a bluff overlooking the silhouette of the Fort Worth skyline. It is removed from the street, from the neighborhood and, it would seem, from any sort of accountability that does not involve equine therapy or cooking classes.

The case of Ethan Couch is many things, but perhaps most important it is a metaphor for the dark side of suburban cosmology, for every other barricaded enclave like Keller — places that, if not entirely above the law, are somehow removed from it. Even after four deaths by the side of the road.

McAuley notices that most of the outrage over Couch’s lenient sentence is coming from outside Texas while the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has risen to Judge Boyd’s defense.  Did the local establishment shrug in indifference because the defendant was one of them?

Mike Norman, the Star-Telegram’s editorial director, doesn’t like McAuley’s tone and isn’t impressed with the young man’s arguments.  As a Dallas native who attended an elite private school before jetting off to Cambridge MA and Oxford, England, Norman suggests, McAuley isn’t well positioned to lecture the wealthy white residents of DFW about walling themselves off from the underprivileged.  The resolution of the Couch case, Norman says, proves just how far North Texas has distanced itself from its lock-em-up legacy.

It is one of the jobs of scholars to opine, sometimes from a point removed from society that allows greater insight. Others decide whether those thoughts have merit that’s at least equal to their weight in navel lint.

It is “perhaps most important” about this case, this scholar says, that “it is a metaphor for the dark side of suburban cosmology, for every other barricaded enclave like Keller — places that, if not entirely above the law, are somehow removed from it.”

No, what’s most important about this case is that it illustrates how Texas has moved away from the lock-’em-up view of juvenile justice in the 1980s and is capable of judging juvenile offenders individually, searching for the best way to keep society safe while reducing the role of lockups that turn offenders into hardened criminals.

Texas, whatever its suburban cosmology might be, can refuse to pile tragedy upon tragedy by adding to the ruin of another young life.

So, who’s got it right?

Both men have served up a big slice of truth.  The denizens of white-flight suburban strongholds do have a hard time understanding the plight of the indigent adolescents who comprise the vast majority of criminal defendants.  I ought to know–I lived on the poor side of Tulia, Texas and now live in one of the North Texas suburbs McAuley describes.  The gulf separating the two worlds is cavernous.

But Mike Norman’s argument, that tough-on-crime Texas is gradually emerging from its love affair with mass incarceration, also rings true.  In his round-up of the year’s top criminal justice stories, Scott “Grits” Henson notes that  “After ordering the Central Unit closed in 2011, Texas closed two more adult prison units in 2013 – private prison facilities in Dallas and Mineral Wells. They also ordered three more juvenile facilities closed – a mental health unit in Corsicana and two halfway houses – thanks to radically declining numbers of juvenile inmates following juvie diversion reforms enacted in 2007.”

That’s real progress, folks!

Still, you can’t help but notice the great gulf separating the typical juvenile defendant in Texas and a rich boy from Keller who must suffer through “equine therapy, cooking classes and martial-arts lessons.”  Still, as I have noted elsewhere, the solution is to grant all young offenders the mercy and understanding Judge Boyd showed Ethan Couch.

James McAuley understands the dynamics of privilege because, as the grandchild of a conservative oil man, his life has witnessed the severe myopia of white-flight suburbs from the inside.  As he says, “affluenza” might be a silly legal defense, but it’s real all the same.

2 thoughts on ““Affluenza” controversy sparks terrific debate

  1. Rehabilitation should always take preference over punishment. The outrage is more about–IMHO–the drastic difference in sentencing between the top 1% and the rest of us hoi polloi.

  2. McAuley has a point. It even applies to churches. We were active in suburban Baptist Churches, insulated from inner city problems for years, and found a different situation when we became members of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, an inner city church with much poverty around it.

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