Regarding Felicity Huffman’s Slap-On-The-Wrist

Before actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced for her participation in the rigged college admissions scandal, also known as “Varsity Blues”, the leftist website Salon had already pronounced her treatment by the justice system as racist. It said in part,

Back in 2011 Tanya McDowell was homeless and living in her van. She wanted her five-year-old son to receive a quality education, so she enrolled him in Brookside Elementary of the Norwalk School District. He was later kicked out due to a residency issue, so he transferred to Bridgeport schools.

Police investigated McDowell and charged her with fraud. A year later she pleaded guilty to first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny; for these offenses, she received a five-year sentence. Before McDowell started serving it out, she was charged with selling narcotics to an undercover police officer, an offense that killed her community support. McDowell was ultimately given 12 years, to be suspended after she served five, and followed by five years of probation; the narcotic sentence to run concurrently with a five-year sentence she had already received in the Norwalk school case. All of this story, from the over-policing of this mother to the severity of her sentence, along with everything she did, was obviously driven by poverty, which remains synonymous with “guilty” in our lopsided system of so-called justice.

On the other hand, you have a person like Felicity Huffman, who enjoys the many privileges that come with being a rich “Desperate Housewives” star…and having the resources to expose her daughter to educational advantages that McDowell may not have even been able to dream of: tutoring, unlimited books, technology, a safe learning environment, and even an SAT specialist who helps struggling kids obtain high scores. …[T]he actress was arrested in March on mail fraud and conspiracy charges as an outcome of the FBI’s Operation Varsity Blues investigation, and pleaded guilty to mail fraud, after paying $15,000 to allegedly rig her daughter’s SAT scores. Huffman is scheduled to be sentenced in Boston on Friday — for one month in prison, if the federal prosecutors’ recommendation is followed. Huffman’s attorneys have instead asked for a year’s probation, plus community service and a $20,000 fine.

Let’s begin with the fact that this is unethical and dishonest advocacy. Searching for an admittedly terrible prosecution from eight years ago  to contrast with Huffman’s case is contrived racism. The fact that the mother was later legitimately charged with selling narcotics renders the comparison a stretch at best.  In the absence of sufficient numbers of cases across the country to make a valid generalization, Salon’s assumptions are just cheap muckraking.

Stipulated: charging McDowell with larceny for trying to sneak her child into a better school district was a cruel and unethical prosecution; charging her with fraud and seeking a significant punishment was not. The idea was to discourage similar deceptions, no matter how well-intentioned they were.  That is a valid law enforcement objective, and an important one.

What Huffman’s attorneys proposed as appropriate punishment was irrelevant to Salon’s thesis. Their job is to get the actress as light a sentence as possible, and if possible, no sentence at all. We are not told what McDowell’s attorney’s argued on her behalf, because it is also irrelevant, but, I suspect, it was omitted because their recommendations were not that different from those of Huffman’s case.

D. Watkins, Salon’s author, says, “I don’t think Huffman will receive any time at all. This why black people make up around 13% of the total population in America, but represent over half of incarcerated people in state and federal prison.”

No, in fact the Huffman case tells us absolutely nothing about so many blacks end up in prison. However, this is the level of critical thinking so much of our punditry consists of.

Huffman did get jail time, but not very much. She was sentenced to two weeks in jail, a year of supervised release, 250 hours of community service and a $30,000 fine for paying $15,000 in a conspiracy to inflate the SAT score of her older daughter and pleading guilty last May to one count of conspiring to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.

U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani’s sentence almost certainly affected more than just Huffman.  It should set a benchmark for the other 15 wealthy parents who have admitted guilt in the scam and who have yet to be sentenced.  Actress Lori Loughlin, who was also charged and had pleaded not guilty, is expected to change her plea now that she knows there is no risk of significant jail time.

The prosecutors asked for a month in jail for Huffman, which I thought was arguably fair. Many had made the valid point that the illicit manner in which Huffman, Loughlin and the rest sought to buy their less-than-stellar kids a place at a prestige college was more a breach of style than tradition. Rich and celebrity families have employed large gifts as lubricants to ease admissions to prestige schools for centuries; the mystery was always why these particular parents felt that cheating on the SATs and fabricating credentials was a better course. It was certainly cheaper, I suppose. In both the traditional means of getting dumb kids into good schools and Huffman’s way, the end result was the same: money was used to rig the system.

Prosecutors had to aim for a sentence that would dissuade other celebrity parents from trying such schemes. I agree that not much of a sentence would be required to do that, especially since the episode has been a well-publicized unmitigated disaster for the families involved. They also could have tried to make an example of the celebrity by “throwing the book at her.” For whatever reason—fairness, fear of backlash— they didn’t

The comparison with McDowell is not helpful, especially as it was raised in Salon’s article. Does Watkins want McDowell to get two weeks, or Huffman to get five years in the Salon version of justice? Who knows? The point is that the only difference is that Huffman is rich and white, and McDowell was poor and black. Well, and that they were in different jurisdictions, and their crimes separated by eight years. And that McDowell sold narcotics to undercover agents. Twice. There’s also the detail that her sentence essentially cancelled out the dubious charge for cheating to get her son into a better school. “This case is about the convictions for the sale of narcotics to an undercover police officer,” the judge said as he sentenced her. “I think you understand that because that is really the essence of what has gotten you into the predicament you find yourself today.”

Details, details.

Salon’s race-baiting (and Bernie Sanders, and my Facebook Borg friends, and many others) notwithstanding, no, I don’t think two weeks was an ethical sentence, unless a diabolical judge was trying to prime political exploitation of the case. Judge Marshall in this case would have noted the defendant’s first time offender status, but still would have given her more jail time than what the prosecution had recommended. Six months with the other provisions seems like a good number, maybe three.

Of course, that sentence would have been racist too, right?

There have been too many polls lately, so this time I’ll just ask: What would your sentence be?


21 thoughts on “Regarding Felicity Huffman’s Slap-On-The-Wrist

  1. Who besides the very rich goes to prison for 14 days! Although I do feel sorry for her celebrity husband who may or may not have known about his wife’s perpetrated fraud and the daughter who did not, 6 months would have been a reasonable sentence. She will obviously go to some minimum security camp where hair style salons are not up to Hollywood standards but frankly I don’t care.

  2. Two weeks seems short but we must consider opportunity costs of incarceration.

    If you lock up a homeless person the homeless person is losing his or her liberty but gaining medical care, food, shelter, and recreation opportunities.

    Conversely, if you incarcerate someone with very high opportunity costs the punishment value is substantially higher than for the homeless person in shorter periods of time.

    If we look to utility theory forcing someone who gives up 50 utils per day for the loss of liberty but who also gains 25 utils per day because of improved nutrition and basic medical care they would not otherwise had the net loss to the homeless is 25 utils for every day of incarceration.

    Now if a wealthy person becomes incarcerated they lose far more than the homeless in terms of earning potential, social standing, standard of living, etc.
    So if a wealthy person values liberty at 500 utils per day and gains nothing for loss of standard of living the for the same amount of time incarcerated the wealthy loses far more than the poor. In this case the ratio is 20:1 so the cost of one day in jail for the wealthy is worth 20 days for the homeless.

    Keep in mind the poor woman in the example cited did not have to pay $30k and 250 hours of service. If we put a value on the service based on what the actress must give up because you cannot work two different jobs at the same time the dollar value could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars

    • I am not sure how what you said, Chris, squares with ‘equal treatment under the law.’

      My usual take is that prison time should be prison time, regardless of the criminal, within sentencing guidelines. Blind justice?

      ‘From those who have much, much will be required’ seems to play into my thought process. Those with more to lose should not be allowed to skate by with less than what would be demanded of one with less to lose.

      I get your argument; just now have food for thought, ponderings to ponder.

      Of course, this looks a LOT like the elitist got off with no real punishment, when a middle class mom charged with the same exact crimes might be treated more harshly.

  3. I would have gone with the recommendation of the prosecution, one month jail time, along with the community service and supervised release, and I might have bumped the fine up considerably. (I saw one report saying the prosecution dropped back to one month out of concern they would get no jail time at all.)
    She appeared to be contrite, she apparently cooperated, she was a first time offender, and she pled guilty, all points in her favor.

    • Not sure if first time offender is relevant. Not like she has that many kids to get into a high prestige school. First time offender I see as more relevant if it’s a crime that often gets repeated like bank robbery, wife beating/assault, or embezzlement. I doubt she’d repeat the crime to benefit random people off the street and she might not see a niece as needing the bribe.

  4. I think two weeks was not enough. If you are sentenced time in prison it should be long enough to imprint a new routine, to emphasize that this is your new reality for doing the crime. I think a month should be an absolute minimum, with no dropping lower. You can coast through punishments that are short on self-righteousness and ego…the end justified the mean. Incarceration must be long enough to break through the ego and denial that it’s worth it. For crimes where the criminal figured it was no big deal, the length should be more of a magic box, that they don’t know what’s in it until its opened/over.

    Personally, I think an extra percent should be tacked on, because she is being a reckless and terrible example for the kid she’s trying to help, like teaching them to drive on the interstate with a bottle of Jack Daniels in her off-wheel hand. And the kid will never know or have the confidence from knowing they did it themselves, that they are not an imposter. That makes her a cruel parent. It should have been one to six months, but she didn’t know it going in, just like all the other students and parents didn’t know going in if they were being accepted. Live with that magic box, dammit.

  5. There are two material distinctions between Huffman and McDowell and neither has to do with race: Huffman cheated to get her daughter into a university she would pay to attend; McDowell cheated to get her child into a public school paid for by tax dollars, intended for public school students in that district. McDowell cheated a child who otherwise should have attended that school of a spot in that school.

    The second is deterence: Huffman’s very public humiliation, arrest, and conviction will send shock waved to other parents thinking if doing the same thing; McDowell needed a stiff, if overbearing, sentence to send messages to other parents doing the same kind of thing. The McDowell court knows this happens all the time and sent a message to everyone: you do this and get caught, you are facing real jail time.


  6. There’s an interesting wrinkle in the McDowell case, something which Salon could have found just as easily as I. Some 26 students were disenrolled from Norwalk public schools due to improper residency without any referral to police, apparently during the 2010-2011 school year (the report was not clear on the timeframe). A school district spokesman said in 2011 that was the normal practice when a student was found to be improperly enrolled. He said they never referred the matter to police, they just disenrolled the kid. McDowell was referred to police by a Norwalk Housing attorney who believed McDowell lied about staying in the apartment of a friend and babysitter who was undergoing eviction.
    So, if Salon wants to make a comparison, this would be more apt – 26 kids disenrolled without police action; one disenrolled and the mother arrested, prosecuted, and jailed (caged, actually, and separated from her child) for five years for the same offense.
    It was not clear in the reports why McDowell’s friend was being evicted. McDowell may have been staying in the NHA apartment occasionally and illegally, and that may have added to the incentive to prosecute, but she apparently was not charged with that. Additionally, one report (without giving details) said she had previously been incarcerated, so that may have been a factor in her sentencing.

  7. If McDowell had school vouchers, her local government wouldn’t be preventing her from getting a quality education for her child. But I don’t think that’s the point Salon was trying to make.

  8. For some reason, I would say at least a month. Not sure exactly why, it just seems that that is the shortest period that registers as being of any significance. Maybe it’s because so much of our lives are tied to an arranged monthly cycle, and being disconnected from each and every customary event and commitment at least once would give a more vivid picture to a miscreant of what is at stake in his/her life.

    Most people, I think, find it difficult to self-disconnect for that long, and maybe that’s where my opinion originates, since my wife and I occasionally do so. To date, we’ve found that about 40 days or so is the maximum we can, say, be out of the country without beginning to at least feel uneasy, even though we may be enjoying ourselves, know that things taken care of, and there is nothing to be worried about back home…We can also be in contact shortly at pretty much any point. I imagine a stay in prison would be a tad more stressful, but still need a certain amount of time for its effects to “take”.

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