The case of Tonya Couch, is a clear example that there is a serious need to revamp our bail system in the U.S. Tanya Couch is the mother of Ethan Couch, the teen who is famously known for avoiding jail time and given probation after drunk driving and killing 4 persons on the unrecognized defense of affluenza –being too rich and too spoiled to understand the difference between right and wrong. After a court set Tonya Couch’s bail at $1 million for hindering the apprehension of her son, a 3rd class felony which carries 10 years in jail, a Texas judge reduced the bail amount to a paltry $75,000. The judge released her on house arrest with a jail electronic monitor and instructions for her to live with her 29 year old son and to stay inside unless visiting her doctor or for lawyer appointments.
After Couch’s son faced a probation violation, she and her son fled to Puerta Vallarta where the two were apprehended. The mother previously withdrew $30,000,and allegedly advised her estranged husband that he would never see his son again. Upon her apprehension, her bail was set at $1 million.
In court, her lawyers argued the bail was too high for Affluenza teen’s mom. And she was ordered to undergo a mental evaluation to determine if she, presumably like her son, suffers from any mental illness that would allow her to understand the ramifications of standing trial.
The purpose of bail is to ensure that a defendant will return to court and not commit any law violations if released on bail. Courts also take into account the seriousness of the crime and likely hood to flee or commit another crime in setting an amount. And bail is one of the more arbitrary ways that most whites are afforded privilege while most Blacks and Hispanics are treated as second class citizens.
As a former prosecutor, I saw many Black defendants who committed the most petty crimes, had ties to the community and were not a flight risk have high bails set. I have seen bails set in court at over $100,000 for Black defendants who have no record and committed a misdemeanor. And in May, 2015, Allen Bulluck, a Baltimore teen who turned himself into authorities for setting a police car on fire following the Baltimore unrest due to Freddie Gray’s death had his bail set at $500,000. The 6 police officers charged with manslaughter and second degree murder for the death of Gray had bails set no higher than $350,00.
Abbe Evans, a former Washington, DC Public Defender describes in her book, How Can You Represent Those People, how often many Black and minority defendants accept plea bargains even while innocent just to get out of jail after being there for months while waiting for trial, unable to make bail. The bail system for many Blacks perpetuates the disparity in the criminal justice system of treatment by Blacks versus those white or more affluent defendants like Tonya Couch.
Had Tonya Couch been a Black woman or man, I doubt very seriously if she would have been allowed home monitoring and reduced bail. She already proved herself to be a flight risk with the economic means to escape again. Tonya Couch shows the criminal justice bail system works in one’s favor when you are white and wealthy. Affluenza teen’s mom is a case study of what’s wrong with our bail system in the U.S. and why it must be fixed to be fair for all.
Money can’t buy love but it can buy bail.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore prosecutor. When she is not representing clients in court, she can be found on air on Al Jazeera America, BET, C-Span, MSNBC, PBS, Fox 5 DC, among other outlets. Her Op Ed’s appear in the Huffington Post, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Afro American.