Affluenza Teen's Charges Highlight America's Systemic Racial Injustice

April 14th 2016

Alex Mierjeski

On Wednesday, Ethan Couch, who gained notoriety as the "affluenza teen," was sentenced to nearly two years behind bars. A Tarrant County Criminal Court judge said Couch would face 720 days in jail — a batch of four consecutive 180-day sentences for each of the four people he killed in a drunk driving incident in 2013.


Couch's case has dredged up a familiar conversation about racial imbalances in U.S. criminal justice, wherein poor minority suspects receive harsher punishments, and affluent white individuals get slaps on the wrist.

Some on social media pointed to the case of Allen Bullock, a 19-year-old who was filmed smashing the windshield of a police car during the Baltimore riots surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, who died following injuries he sustained during his arrest in April 2015. Bullock, who claimed he was friends with Gray, was sentenced earlier this month to 11.5 years behind bars, five years probation, and 400 hours of community service. He must also get his GED and write an apology letter to the Baltimore police, CBS Baltimore reported. (These cases were overseen by two different judges in two different states, but the comparison is still stark.)

Ethan Couch vs. Allen Bullock meme

Others pointed to Couch's original sentencing in 2013 — when lawyers argued that his coddled upbringing stunted a sense of right and wrong, getting Couch a reduced sentence of ten years probation — to further highlight the disparity.

In 2012, Judge Jean Boyd, who spared a then-16-year-old Couch from jail time, sentenced a 14-year-old Black boy to ten years in juvenile detention for killing someone with one punch, Business Insider reported at the time. In that case, the offender struck a man Mark Gregory, who fell, striking his head and died two days later. "Clearly there are two Americas," one Twitter user observed.

For some, Couch's Wednesday sentence was vindication: The 19-year-old, who killed four and later fled the country in an attempt to dodge authorities after breaking his parole, would finally serve at least some jail time — not just probation. Couch faces 720 consecutive days in jail, unless Texas State District Judge Wayne Salvant reconsiders before the case reconvenes in two weeks.

No matter how the case turns out, the sentence is unlikely to quell the frustration of those who see the case as a perfect picture of the unbalanced racial scales typical of the U.S. criminal justice system.