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The Case of Ethan Couch, the “Affluenza” Teen: Restorative Justice Needed

various flags blown by wind

April 2016
Much has been written  on the case of Ethan Couch, the 16-year old Texas teen from Fort Worth who in 2013 killed four individuals after driving drunk on June 15, 2013. During the sentencing hearing a psychologist testifying on the case said Couch did not know the consequences of his actions and blamed his parents. Couch was said to be suffering from “affluenza” because of the wealth of his family. RJI adds two stories regarding Couch including the updated  story from CNN on April 13, 2016 where a judge is now considering a new sentence of two years since Couch is now 19-years of age.
Original story from the BBC in 2013:
RJI proposes that restorative justice should be applied to this case since what is missing is the focus on the deaths of the four victims. For remorse to occur in the offender, no matter the age, the offender must be held accountable.
It is strange to us that four individuals lost their lives due to the negligence of Ethan Couch on June 15, 2013 but rarely can the names of those victims be found in the news stories. Two other individuals were also injured during the accident including Sergio Molina who remains paralyzed. The victims’ names are 1) Hollie Boyles, 52 years, 2) Shelby Boyles, 21 years, daughter, and 3) Brian Jennings, 41 years, youth pastor.
For Ethan Couch to come to a point of remorse he should face his victims’ families if the families of the victims are willing to meet Couch. Restorative justice principles are most often best understood by the use of victim offender dialogue. With the use of victim offender dialogue the offender must take responsibility for his actions before a meeting could occur. Victims must first choose to meet, which is critical, but offenders also voluntarily participate. In this case, especially in the state of Texas, the judge should consider sending Couch to an in-custody restorative justice program since Texas has many in operation especially the very successful Bridges to Life program. The purpose of in-custody restorative justice programs like Bridges to Life and the Sycamore Tree Project, first tested in Texas in 1998, is to expose offenders to the pain that victims experience after violent crime. In-custody restorative justice programs that bring victims into prison to tell their stories and meet with offenders are increasing. And they should. Such programs should be in use in adult prisons and juvenile facilities.
It is clear to us from the reading of Couch’s story that Ethan Couch could benefit from restorative justice and clearly his victims could as well. After violent crime it is the victims who suffer often in silence because the justice system ignores their needs. This is a tragic example of such a case but even now it could be corrected by understanding the value of restorative justice to both the victims of crime and their offenders. Judges need to know restorative justice exists and where it is not in use such programs should be initiated and funded. Victims of crime should also know that restorative justice exists and that through participating in such programs they can begin the long road to healing. Offenders, too, like Ethan Couch have a better shot at “rehabilitation” by participating in restorative justice programs. What the public really wants is for Ethan not to turn into a repeal offender and kill again due to his negligence.
This is Lisa Rea for Restorative Justice International