The Ethan Couch Sentencing: What’s a Life Worth?

ethan couch sentencing If you killed four people while driving drunk, how much time should you serve?

If someone killed four people dear to you while driving drunk, how much time should he serve?

There’s a reason sentencing is a difficult area of law, and the case of Ethan Couch, the “Affluenza Teen,” is riling up victims’ families, legislators, safety advocates, and the media in general. The most recent source of outrage is the sentence Couch received: 720 days, or six months for each of the lives he took in 2013 in Tarrant County, Texas.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, for one, thought the sentence was far too lenient. Worse, the judge was considering reducing that sentence. MADD National President Colleen Sheehy-Church wrote an open letter to Tarrant County state District Judge Wayne Salvant asking him to keep the full sentence, inadequate as she thinks that is.

The news came yesterday: the sentence will stand. Ethan Couch will serve the maximum time allowed by Texas law.

The 720-day sentence was itself a reconsideration: originally Couch got 10 years’ probation, which was changed after Couch violated probation terms, drank, and even fled to Mexico with his mother. The light treatment was ascribed to a psychologist’s report that put Couch’s behavior down to “affluenza” – an inability to understand the consequences of one’s actions because of a wealthy, privileged, responsibility-free upbringing.

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The “affluenza” argument did not gain much traction outside the Tarrant County courtroom. Couch’s youth was a factor, as it should have been – he was 16 at the time of the crash. But looking at other DUI sentences for comparable crimes is illuminating:

  • A Georgia man was sentenced to 75 years for killing three people and paralyzing a small child.
  • A California woman got 55 years for second-degree DUI murder.
  • Two years ago a woman in Texas received life in prison for DWI – even though she harmed no one. Her sentence resulted from a “three strikes” law for felony DWIs.

Should Ethan Couch have received a sentence comparable to these? If the victims – four dead and nine injured – are your loved ones, no sentence will seem long enough. Nevertheless, in the U.S. our laws distinguish between the actions of a minor and an adult, no matter how terrible the consequences of those actions.

Ultimately, MADD is right that the sentence has to be long enough to show respect for the victims, and to hold Couch accountable for his actions. We can’t let “affluenza” distort our view of what really matters: the victims, their families, the safety of our citizens and the need for a fair and wise judiciary.