On March 12, the major media platforms broadcasted the nation’s most massive college admissions cheating scandal. The news rampantly spread across the country as the Federal Bureau of Investigation indicted celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin for numerous charges.
On Sept. 13, Felicity Huffman was tried and sentenced for mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. She pleaded guilty to paying $15,000 for her daughter’s SAT scores to be fraudulently increased for college admissions. Her seemingly insubstantial consequences sparked debate about wealth, fame and racial privileges in the Criminal Justice System. The question is: Does the public outcry about privilege and entitlement have validity?
Regardless of one’s belief in white privilege, there is copious data on racial disparities in incarceration. African Americans are incarcerated five times the rate of white people, even though white people comprise approximately 76 percent of the United States population. Furthermore, African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, yet African Americans are six times more likely to be imprisoned on drug charges. Drug-related convictions are only one component of incarceration disparities.
Let’s analyze the logistics of a case that embodies similar charges to Felicity Huffman’s. Kelley Williams-Boar is a single African American mother from Ohio who longed for her two daughters to receive a quality education. In a decision of legal ignorance and personal desire, Williams-Boar provided her father’s address for the school district. Boundary hopping consequently led to Williams-Boar’s 9 days of jail time, 80 hours of community service and three years on probation.
Felicity Huffman’s punishment consisted of 14 days in prison, a $30,000 fine, and 250 hours of community service. The consequences administered to Williams-Boar shifted the dynamics of her family life and financial state. Comparatively, Felicity Huffman’s sentence appears to be a temporary infringement on her luxurious millionaire lifestyle.
Another aspect of the Criminal Justice System to analyze is the discrepancy in prison environments. Felicity Huffman’s attorney requested that she spend her 14-day imprisonment at a federal correctional facility in Dublin, California. This facility will allow her to sunbathe, participate in recreation programs and partake in other leisure activities such as crafting, TV watching and shopping. She can spend $320 a month on goodies such as candy, cookies, ice cream, instant coffee, toiletries and greeting cards. This special prison treatment raises questions of wealth privilege not only in sentencing but also in prison placement. The access to luxuries seems to characterize her impending imprisonment as a two-week getaway.
Legal accountability for the culpable is alarmingly inconsistent among varying demographics. The stark incarceration rates faced by impoverished individuals are overwhelmingly large compared to those of their wealthier counterparts. Men who grew up in the lower socio-economic class are 20 times more likely to be imprisoned by their 30s in comparison to men of the upper social rung.
While the wealthy benefit from the Justice System, the fault lies not within the individual, but within the institutional establishment. The Justice System’s prejudice perceptions can impede its ability to execute impartial judgment. The system more harshly enforces the law on those deemed “inferior” in society in comparison to the advantaged.
Unfortunately, negative stereotypes generalized upon various ethnic groups reinforce this inequality. The two dominant minority groups, African Americans and Hispanics, are both culturally stigmatized. For instance, people associate African Americans with the ghetto and typecast Hispanics as drug enablers. The difference between labeling minorities and labeling whites is simply the fact that minorities pay for their stereotype. They are held accountable to these hostile perceptions, which in turn facilitate destructive implications in their daily life.
Felicity Huffman’s advantages allowed her to receive convenient and accommodating consequences. In cases such as hers, it becomes apparent that white Americans are often free of this accountability. But the solution is not a change by individual situation. In other words, increasing or decreasing Huffman’s sentence would be ineffective in revolutionizing the system. The answer is to have a standard that adjudicators do not adjust for ethnic or monetary factors. They should justly sentence the consequences of crime regardless of one’s socioeconomic status.