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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

When rich people refuse to learn their lesson

Actress Felicity Huffman, escorted by her husband William

Actress Felicity Huffman, escorted by her husband William H. Macy, exits the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston, where she was sentenced by a judge for her role in the college admissions scandal on Sept. 13. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Joseph Prezioso

Remember the "affluenza teen"?

That would be Ethan Couch, from Texas, who was 16 years old in 2013 when, stoked on Valium, marijuana and a lot of alcohol, he lost control of his speeding pickup truck and crashed it into some people trying to fix a broken-down car. Four of them died and nine others were injured, including one of his own passengers, who was paralyzed.

At Couch's trial, a psychologist testified that the teen's behavior was due to "affluenza," meaning that his upbringing of millionaire parents giving him no boundaries and teaching him that wealth buys privilege left him unable to understand that dangerous actions have consequences. Though prosecutors called for 20 years in prison, Couch was sentenced to rehab, 10 years of drug- and alcohol-free probation and no jail time.

The outrageousness was hammered home two years later, when a video surfaced on social media that seemed to show him violating his probation terms. Couch and his mother, still wallowing in affluenza, vanished before being captured a few weeks later in a resort city in Mexico. The brazen bolt finally got Couch two years in prison.

Affluenza, a term used to try to help Couch evade responsibility for his actions, is sprouting again in the college admissions scandal in which nearly three dozen mostly wealthy parents, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, have been charged — and some convicted — of buying their children's way into the colleges of their choice. The parents paid the scheme's mastermind sums that ranged into six figures for one of two basic services, and sometimes for both — altering their child's standardized test scores, or bribing college coaches and athletic officials to accept otherwise-unqualified students on the pretense, backed by false documents and photos, that they were recruited athletes.

The scandal hit home for parents and students who assembled honest college resumes — by studying hard, taking tough classes, volunteering, participating in community and school life, and the like.

Now, some parents snared in the scandal are going full-affluenza in the sentencing process. One hired a prominent (and pricey) Los Angeles criminologist whose 34-page report said the father's difficult childhood made him vulnerable to manipulation that led him to take part in the admissions scheme. Another said he had been punished enough by losing his job, his ability to practice law and his good name. That sounds more like a logical and appropriate societal consequence of a high-powered lawyer paying $75,000 to have his daughter's ACT exam altered.

Both got prison time, as did a third parent who produced a fancy video extolling his charity work. It included testimonials from Special Olympics officials, and proposed that in lieu of jail, he be allowed to design and raise funds for a project in which private school students would play sports with children with disabilities, which he said would teach values of inclusion and diversity — a claim the judge presiding over the case in Boston called "about as tone-deaf as I've heard."  

There are other words one could use — like abject cluelessness and unmitigated gall — to describe people who, after trying to use their wealth and privilege to game the college admissions systems for their children, try to use their wealth and privilege to game the criminal justice system for themselves.

A lawyer for the father who pitched the community service project told the court it wasn't intended to help his client avoid punishment, but to give back to society. May I suggest a twofer? Do the time AND give back to society.

That's a form of accountability all walks of life would understand.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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