“It” is actress Felicity Huffman’s 14-day prison sentence, along with 250 hours of community service, a $30,000 fine, and one year of supervised release. The Hollywood star is being punished for her involvement in a college admissions scandal in which she pleaded guilty to paying someone $15,000 to rig her daughter’s SAT scores. It’s true the sentence isn’t fair, but not because it isn’t sufficiently punitive. On the contrary: it’s too harsh.
The knee-jerk reaction is understandable. Defendants who are less privileged than Huffman have received harsher sentences for lesser offenses, something not lost on the many disgruntled media pundits and Twitter users who weighed in on the decision. But the desire to inflict maximal suffering on Huffman simply because others have suffered more is pushing in the wrong direction. Folks who have endured worse punishments for lesser crimes are not helped by throwing the book at Huffman. We should try to lessen the disproportionate punishments faced by low-income and non-white defendants; destroying the privileged gets us the wrong kind of equality.
Take the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar, who I wrote about in March after the college admissions scandal first broke. In 2011, the Ohio mom used her father’s address to ensure her kids received a better education in his superior school district. For that offense, she served nine days of a five-year prison sentence, completed 80 hours of community service, and received three years probation—a harsher punishment when considering her less severe crime.
Williams-Bolar is black, and she isn’t a celebrity, but those aren’t the only differences between her and Huffman. The former wanted the basics for her kids; the latter wanted to buy her daughter’s way to prestige.
But because Williams-Bolar was harshly punished, does that mean Huffman should meet a worse fate? To answer in the affirmative is to say our criminal justice system is bad because it penalizes people disproportionately. But that is not, in fact, the primary problem. The problem is that it excessively penalizes so many people at all, generally by criminalizing everything under the sun. Throwing Huffman behind bars and tossing away the key would do nothing to address our unenviable distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Indeed, the U.S. currently has an approximate 1.3 million people languishing in its state prisons, and that doesn’t account for local jails, federal institutions, or immigrant detention centers. Of that 1.3 million, only 55 percent committed violent crimes. The rest are there for offenses—like drug convictions—where the offender likely poses no threat to the general public.
As Chandra Bozelko points out in the Washington Post, handing down an exceptionally retributive sentence to offenders like Huffman will not help the Williams-Bolars of the world. In fact, it will do the opposite. “When we try to cure disparities by simply incarcerating more white, or wealthier, defendants, the entire population ends up getting punished more severely,” she writes. “A study conducted by the sentencing commission found that a decline in racial disparities in sentencing has been driven not by shorter sentences for everyone but by more people being sentenced to longer periods under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.”
Lori Loughlin, of Full and Fuller House fame, is also implicated in the college admissions scandal: She is pleading not guilty for allegedly paying $500,000 to sneak her daughter into the University of Southern California as a fake rowing recruit. Her and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, are each facing 40 years in prison—more than some serve for murder.