HOUSTON — ‘‘Affluenza,’’ the affliction cited by a psychologist to argue that a North Texas teenager from a wealthy family should not be sent to prison for killing four pedestrians while driving drunk, is not a recognized diagnosis and should not be used to justify bad behavior, experts said Thursday.
A judge’s decision to give 16-year-old Ethan Couch 10 years of probation for the fatal accident sparked outrage from relatives of those killed and has led to questions about the defense strategy. A psychologist testified in Couch’s trial in a Fort Worth juvenile court 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.’’
Although Couch’s case was handled in juvenile court, he has been identified publicly by the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office.
It wasn’t clear if ‘‘affluenza’’ has been successfully used as a defense before. Richard Segura, a supervising attorney at the University of Texas at Austin’s Criminal Defense Clinic, said he had never even heard of the condition.
On the other hand, he said, the defense attorney would have probably 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 probably factored in rehabilitation, restitution, and other factors when sentencing Couch.
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. District Judge Jean Boyd’s sentence, issued Tuesday, 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?’’ Luthar asked.