Texas Bill Would Ban “Affluenza” Defense

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If you committed a crime in Texas and are planning to ask for leniency because you were raised in a wealthy and privileged household, you might want to hurry.

This is assuming you actually need to ask, which in most jurisdictions normally isn't required.

As you may recall, about this time last year a Texas boy was sentenced to probation after a psychologist testified he should get therapy rather than jail time because he suffered—if that's the word—from a condition the psychologist referred to as "affluenza." At first I thought people were using "affluenza" as a joke (see "Okay, I Thought People Were Using 'Affluenza' as a Joke," Lowering the Bar (Dec. 13, 2013)), but the psychologist did in fact use that term himself, it turned out. As this report put it, the psychologist testified that the boy was "a product of affluenza [air-quotes being added by me right now], where his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences." He got everything he wanted and was allowed to do whatever he wanted, in other words, and that's why he got drunk and killed four people with his pickup truck. So he just needs some counseling. (He was only 16, but still.)

While affluenza is not (yet) an "official" disorder, at least by that name, it seems to me that at least a couple of the DSM-5's official categories are, shall we say, elastic enough to include it. Both "Oppositional Defiant Disorder" and "Conduct Disorder" include parental neglect or "lack of supervision" among the diagnostic factors, although I don't see wealth specifically listed anywhere. As a layperson looking at those factors, it looks to me like approximately 100% of adolescents have Oppositional Defiant Disorder ("is often angry and resentful," "often argues with adults," "often deliberately annoys others"). Also, I think I have it.

The more serious Conduct Disorder is "a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others … are violated," characterized by aggression ("often bullies, threatens, or intimidates others," "has used a weapon that can cause serious physical harm"), property destruction or deceit ("has broken into someone else's house"), so a lot of police departments obviously suffer from that one.

The Texas bill, HB 109, would preclude the trier of fact from considering in a sentencing phase "any evidence offered to establish that the defendant did not understand the consequences of the defendant's actions because the defendant was raised in a household that was overly permissive due to affluent circumstances." Legislatures are mostly adjourned at the moment (you didn't think they work during the holidays, did you?), so we will have to wait until next year to learn what happens with this.