‘Affluenza’ defense in criminal case criticized

12/13/2013 7:30 AM

11/12/2014 4:18 PM

Affluenza, a term that a psychologist used this week in asserting that a teenager from a wealthy Tarrant County family should not be sent to prison for killing four people while driving drunk, is not a recognized diagnosis and should not be used to justify bad behavior, experts said Thursday.

On Tuesday, state District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced the 16-year-old to 10 years probation with intensive rehabilitation treatment required.

The families of the people killed have criticized the sentence, which attracted national media attention.

Among the witnesses during a three-day sentencing hearing in a Fort Worth juvenile courtroom was psychologist Gary Miller, called by the defense. Miller testified that as a result of “affluenza,” the boy should not receive the maximum 20-year prison sentence prosecutors were seeking.

The term affluenza was popularized in the late 1990s by Jessie O’Neill, the granddaughter of a past president of General Motors, when she wrote the book The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence. It has since been used to describe a condition in which children – generally from richer families – have a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible, make excuses for poor behavior, and sometimes dabble in drugs and alcohol, explained Dr. Gary Buffone, a Jacksonville, Fla., psychologist who does family wealth advising.

But Buffone said in a telephone interview Thursday that the term wasn’t meant to be used as a defense in a criminal trial or to justify such behavior.

“The simple term would be spoiled brat,” he said.

“Essentially what [the judge] has done is slapped this child on the wrist for what is obviously a very serious offense which he would be responsible for in any other situation,” Buffone said. “The defense is laughable, the disposition is horrifying … not only haven’t the parents set any consequences, but it’s being reinforced by the judge’s actions.”

Prosecutor Richard Alpert had argued in court that if the boy continues to be cushioned by his family’s wealth, another tragedy is inevitable.

Scott Brown, the teen’s lead defense attorney, said the teen could have been freed after two years if he had drawn the 20-year sentence. Instead, the judge “fashioned a sentence that could have him under the thumb of the justice system for the next 10 years,” he told the Star-Telegram.

The teen pleaded guilty to four counts delinquent conduct/involuntary manslaughter and two of delinquent conduct/intoxication assault.

As reported by the Star-Telegram on Wednesday, Boyd said that programs available in the Texas juvenile justice system might not provide the intensive therapy the teen could receive at a rehabilitation center in California as proposed by the defense. The parents agreed to pay for treatment, which was estimated to cost about $450,000.

He will stay in Tarrant County juvenile detention until the juvenile probation department prepares a report about treatment options. If he violates the probation, he could be sent to prison for 10 years.

One legal expert said Thursday that he had never heard of “affluenza.”

“The concept that I did something because I’m rich and spoiled doesn’t look like a good causation,” Richard Segura, a supervising attorney at the University of Texas at Austin’s Criminal Defense Clinic, told the AP. “It doesn’t sound like something that would ameliorate the punishment.”

On the other hand, he said, the defense attorney would have likely looked at all the facts in the case and tailored them in a way that he thought would best influence the judge’s decision. In addition, the judge likely factored in rehabilitation, restitution and other factors when sentencing the teen, Segura said.

Dr. Suniya Luthar, a psychologist who specializes in the costs of affluence in suburban communities, said her research at Columbia University in New York has shown that 20 percent of upper middle-class adolescents believe their parents would help them get out of a sticky situation at school, such as being caught for the third time on campus with a bottle of vodka. Boyd’s sentence reinforces that belief, Luthar said.

“What is the likelihood if this was an African-American, inner-city kid that grew up in a violent neighborhood to a single mother who is addicted to crack and he was caught two or three times … what is the likelihood that the judge would excuse his behavior and let him off because of how he was raised?” Luthar asked.

“We are setting a double standard for the rich and poor,” she added, noting the message is “families that have money, you can drink and drive. This is a very, very dangerous thing we’re telling our children.”

Authorities have said the teen and friends were seen on surveillance video stealing two cases of beer from a store. He had seven passengers in his Ford F-350 pickup, was speeding and had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit, according to trial testimony. His truck slammed into four people standing near a disabled car on Burleson-Retta Road, killing Brian Jennings, 43, Breanna Mitchell, 24, Shelby Boyles, 21, and her mother, Hollie Boyles, 52.

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