Ethan Couch detained in Mexico: Would a black teen get probation?

The Ethan Couch 'affluenza' defense highlights disparities in criminal sentencing between white and black teens. 

(U.S. Marshals Service via AP)
The U.S. Marshals Service issued a Wanted poster for Ethan Couch, a teenager who was serving probation for killing four people in a 2013 drunken-driving wreck after invoking a defense that he suffered from "affluenza." Couch was found in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

The capture of Ethan Couch and his mother who fled to Mexico after a judge showed leniency to the affluent, white, teen has hit a nerve with those who continue to advocate for racial equality in criminal sentencing for all ages.

Statistics show that African American and Latino men and boys are sentenced at a much higher rate than their white counterparts for the commission of the same crimes, starting in school classrooms where suspension rates mirror those of incarceration.

Couch, 18, was under probation for a 2013 drunk-driving crash that killed four people and drew national attention over his defense attorney’s “affluenza” argument.

Couch violated his probation earlier this month. He and his mother were found and detained on Monday near the Mexican beach resort of Puerto Vallarta, according to the Associated Press.

“It’s interesting isn’t it how the bells of justice ring for some and they’re silent for others,” says Caree Harper a Los Angeles lawyer in a phone interview. “You see it as one thing but what I see it is as pain. I see it as sad that this is the state of affairs we are in.”

Ms. Harper adds, “Even though there’s progress being made by different organizations we still have so far to go and quite frankly our slip is showing under the dress. The fabric of America is showing, the racism and the bigotry of America is showing and it could not be any more evident than the cases we are seeing in the news.”

Ms. Harper represented Marlene Pinnock, a homeless African-American great-grandmother, in a case against the former California Highway Patrol officer. Former CHP officer Daniel Andrew was caught on video beating the unarmed, elderly woman for failing to heed his request to stop meandering in a traffic lane in July 2014. The case settled, but on Dec. 16 Harper wrote to US Attorney General Loretta Lynch pleading for her to criminally charge the former officer.

“You never hear of any of our brown and black sisters and brothers getting leniency for being too poor to deal with the consequences of their actions,” Harper says of the Couch case, which she says is one more example pointing to the need for the judicial system to work harder to remove disparity in sentencing. “In the Couch case, this judge had the audacity to buy into this 'too rich to be punished' [affluenza] defense.”

Khalilah L. Brown-Dean, an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, expressed similar sentiments on Twitter.

In an e-mail interview, Dr. Brown-Dean writes that the timing of Ethan Couch's capture is “critical given other developments related to crime and policing.”

“On the same day that Ethan Couch and his mother were captured in Mexico, Cleveland, Ohio's prosecutor announced his recommendation that a grand jury not indict the police officer who shot and killed 12 year old Tamir Rice,” Brown-Dean writes. “Couch drove under the influence at the age of 16, killed 4 people, and received probation due to an affluenza defense. Rice was killed within seconds of officers arriving on the scene and blamed for his own murder. These cases provide compelling support for the view that racial disparities are deeply embedded in America's criminal justice system. This anecdotal evidence is buttressed by empirical data showing that children of color receive harsher punishments than their white peers when charged with the same crime.”

Brown-Dean adds, “The disparities become even greater when we consider how money affords greater access to a quality defense team. From decisions about when to make traffic stops to whether prosecutors recommend prison or probation, this subjectivity breeds discontent and mistrust.”

According to a study by the Schott Foundation for Public Education titled “Black Lives Matter: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males,” inequality of this nature gets a head start in schools where boys of color are more than twice as likely to be suspended in school for an infraction than their white counterparts.

 The Sentencing Project’s website shows that “more than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day.”

A document on the NAACP’s website titled “Incarceration Trends in America” African Americans constitute nearly one million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population and are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.

According to the report. “…if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today's prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%.”

Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26 percent of juvenile arrests, 44 percent of youth who are detained, 46 percent of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58 percent of the youth admitted to state prisons, according to the NAACP.

“If I were the prosecutor in this case I would thank God for another bite at Ethan because now he deserves to be bitten and get the full sentence and punishment that is allowable,” Ms. Harper adds. “They should settle for nothing less because now they have an opportunity to make it right.”

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