Opinion Editorial

The 'affluenza' debate comes to California

The Texas teenager who played the "affluenza" card to stay out of prison certainly sounds like a spoiled brat. In fact, he wouldn't deny it; that was his argument for a light sentence — that his overprivileged, under-disciplined life had led to a lack of judgment and concern for others, and therefore he shouldn't be punished severely for his crimes. And in the end, although he stole alcohol, drove far above the speed limit while exceedingly drunk, killed four people with his father's pickup and then fled the scene, he was sentenced to probation rather than jail time.

It's an offensive argument, and it prompted a wave of public fury. But that doesn't mean we should support a bill introduced last week by Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) that would ban the "affluenza defense" in California, where it has never been used.

AB 1508 is another of those oversimplified, one-off pieces of legislation — a reaction to news reports about a single court case that might have no larger ramifications. To start with, no wealth defense was offered in the Texas case; the teenager's lawyers weren't trying for a verdict of "innocent by virtue of Armani wallet." He had pleaded guilty and his family's fortunes were brought up only as a bizarre argument during sentencing that there were extenuating circumstances.

Nor is it clear that the tactic worked. The judge never said that the affluenza argument persuaded her to grant probation; her concern appeared to be that the teenager needed rehabilitation that he wouldn't receive in state incarceration.

In general, the law gives wide leeway to judges in determining which factors should shape the sentences they hand down, and to lawyers in mounting the defense they think will best serve their clients. That's especially true in juvenile court, where this case was decided. Such flexibility is, for the most part, a good thing, and should not be changed on the basis of a single court decision — even a bad decision, which this one may have been.

Too often, lawmakers pass crime bills in response to headlines and public outrage. A better approach would be to create a commission to consider systemic problems in sentencing in a thoughtful, proportional and comprehensive way. Gatto's bill is an overreaction to what is most likely a non-problem. In introducing it, he shows his own version of poor judgment.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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