As a former prosecutor, when I saw that Felicity Huffman received a sentence of 250 hours of community sentence, 14 days jail time, a $30,000 fine and one year’s probation for paying $15,000 to Rick Singer to boost her daughter’s SAT test scores for college entrance, I was outraged but not surprised. Huffman knowingly admitted to paying Singer. She knew her actions were wrong and illegal. Her case was part of the largest college scandal case in history prosecuted by the Justice Department.
Actress Lori Loughlin decided to enter a plea of not guilty. She paid $500,000.00 to advance her daughter’s college entrance. Her case is pending. After today’s sentencing, Loughlin may breathe a sigh of relief.
White defendants and particularly white celebrity defendants most always get a break in court sentencing. A one -month sentence recommendation by prosecutors is usually never heard of. As a former prosecutor, I recall a minimum jail sentence recommendation by prosecutors is usually in the range of 3-6 months. This case demanded more than a minimum sentence. Our criminal justice system treats defendants who are rich and famous differently than those who are poor and minorities. It treats white defendants better and black defendants worse than their white counterparts.
While some may claim there was no loss, so no harm or foul; that is incorrect. The loss is the damage done to the integrity of the college entrance system and those parents and hard -working students who follow the rules and are denied entrance to the college or university of their chose.
Huffman’s sentencing and case may be compared to the case of the case of Crystal Mason. Mason, an African American, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2018 for voting in Texas in the 2016 presidential election. Unbeknownst to her, she was ineligible to vote due to her felon status. Mason, upon release from federal prison after already serving a prison term believed that she could vote immediately upon her release. Legally, she was not entitled to vote due to Texas law. Convicted felons are not eligible to vote if they are on probation, parole or “supervision.” Her name was not on the voter’s list. She was given a provisional ballot which was later rejected. Despite her assertion that no one told her of her restricted status, a judge convicted her of a felony. Her case is on appeal following appellate arguments this week.
In Mason’s case, she was unaware that she did anything wrong. Huffman knowingly knew she was doing wrong as she drove her daughter to the SAT test site. Mason get 5 years for a provisional ballot that didn’t count. Huffman gets 14 days for her daughter’s college admission acceptance. Two cases—two different outcomes. Huffman knew she was committing a fraud. Mason and her probation officer denied that she knew the law.
Contrast Huffman’s case with an earlier case of Tanya McDowell, an African American mother who received a five -year sentence in prison for “stealing an education” for her kindergarten son. McDowell, a homeless mother, should have enrolled her son in school in Bridgeport, CT. Instead she enrolled him in Norwalk, the address of her baby- sitter. Instead of asking her to remove her son from the Bridgeport school system, the school district decided to prosecute. Like Huffman, McDowell decided to plead guilty.
There is no real difference between the Huffman case and that of McDowell—except race and status.
Celebrity justice should be applied to the Crystal Masons, Tanya McDowells and other black defendants who are convicted of similar crimes. Equal justice under the law should be a reality when sentencing African Americans rather than a myth.
Debbie Hines is a former Baltimore prosecutor.