When actress Felicity Huffman received a two-week federal prison sentence this month for her role in the college admissions scandal, many people expressed outrage. She was also fined $30,000 and has to do 250 hours of community service. However, Huffman’s 14-day sentence reignited the issue of sentencing inequalities between wealthy, mostly white defendants and poorer ones — particularly people of color.
In fact, in arguing before the judge for prison time for the actress, prosecutors noted the case of an African American woman in Ohio. She received a five-year sentence for falsely claiming she lived at a relative’s address so her kids could attend school in a more affluent area. Nearly all of that sentence was eventually suspended. However, she remained on probation for three years and had to do community service.
As the lead prosecutor in the Huffman case said, “If a poor single mom from Akron who is actually trying to provide a better education for her kids goes to jail, there is no reason that a wealthy, privileged mother with all the legal means available to her should avoid that same fate.”
The attorney for that mother said, “When you are rich — and particularly if you’re rich and white in this country — there’s a different justice system. He noted, however, “Sending Felicity Huffman to jail is not going to solve that problem.”
Another case referenced by Huffman’s prosecutors was that of the Atlanta public school teachers and administrators who became embroiled in a cheating scandal four years ago that involved falsifying standardized test results. Nearly all of them were African American. Among the charges they were convicted of was racketeering.
As one of their attorneys said, “Our educators…were way over-prosecuted and way over-punished.” He added, though, “My answer is not to give Felicity Huffman more, but to give our clients less.”
Huffman admitted to paying $15,000 to get some of her daughter’s SAT answers corrected by a test proctor to improve her scores. Specifically, she pleaded guilty to felony mail fraud charges.
Many of the other 51 defendants in the college admissions scandal likely will get harsher sentences. Prosecutors are seeking over a year behind bars for some.
Many factors — including class and race — can impact charging and sentencing for crimes. That’s why it’s essential to have attorney to fight to protect your rights at every step in the proceedings.