Does Character Belong in Court?

On March 12, the college admissions world was shocked by over 50 charges against wealthy parents who were involved in a conspiracy to bribe college officials and to cheat on critical college entrance exams. These wealthy parents spent $500,000 to $6.5 million to bribe officials and guarantee their children’s admissions into top schools including Stanford, Yale and Georgetown. Now, the case has resurfaced with the sentencing of Felicity Huffman, one of the two celebrities involved in the scheme, and a greater debate about leniency in our nation’s greater criminal justice system.

Felicity Huffman was the first of over 30 defendants involved in the scheme to be charged. After she pleaded guilty to the charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, U.S. District Court Judge Indira Talwani sentenced her to 14 days in jail, followed by a year of supervised release, 250 hours of community service and a $30,000 fine. What is outrageous about this sentence is not the severity of the punishment but instead the disparity of sentencing that stemmed from Huffman’s identity as a privileged, wealthy celebrity.

Many critics of this case have accused Huffman of taking advantage of her public visibility as a celebrity to receive leniency in her sentencing. In a letter to the court asking for a reduced sentence, Huffman wrote about the difficulties of being a mother, stating that she found motherhood “bewildering” and that she had believed that committing fraud was the best course of action for her daughter’s success. Huffman’s husband, William H. Macy, and her “Desperate Housewives” co-star Eva Longoria also sent letters to the court asking for leniency for Huffman, writing that Huffman’s “gentle character and kind heart” warranted leniency in the eyes of the law.

But can character truly be used as a defense for leniency in our nation’s criminal justice system? In the context of our nation’s discriminatory sentencing practices, the issue of character has been a charged one. In 2016, when Stanford swimmer Brock Turner was convicted with three criminal counts, the nation was stunned by the leniency of his sentence. Critics were outraged when Dan Turner, the defendant’s father, attempted to paint his son’s sexual assault as a mere 20 minutes of action that ruined Brock Turner’s “happy go lucky” life in a letter to the court.

In July, the nation was again outraged at another case in which the judge denied the prosecutor’s motions to try the defendant, a 16-year old charged with rape, as an adult. The judge denied the motion and described the defendant as someone who came “from a good family” and who could get into a “good college.” The judge was also concerned that prosecutors had not explained to the alleged victim the “devastating effect” the charges would have on the accuser’s future.

Ultimately, the use of character as a defense and argument for leniency is one that hits at the core of the racial and class disparities in our nation’s criminal justice system. Critics have drawn contrasts between Huffman and Turner’s lenient sentences with the harsh ones received by defendants of color. Recently, the case of a homeless mother in Bridgeport, Connecticut received national outrage when she was sentenced to five years for sending her son to an elementary school in the wrong school district. In another case, a homeless and mentally ill black man spent nearly four years in prison after stealing eight socks from a department store in Manhattan. These cases are only the tip of the iceberg.

According to the advocacy group Sentencing Project, more than 60 percent of America’s incarcerated population are people of color. While it would be wrong to place the blame for these stark statistics on Huffman or Turner, they do illustrate how our criminal justice system continues to discriminate against people of color and unfairly give the privileged and wealthy an unjust advantage.

Huffman’s sentencing is a bullet point in a larger conversation about the necessity of impartiality within the judicial system — and the innate paradox that comes with it. How can decisions that demand objectivity be made by inherently subjective beings? In the case of the college admissions scandal, we see bias tip the scale of justice yet again, proving that this question lies unanswered. Still, partiality may be avoidable if the right metrics of judgement are used. That means minimizing the influence of character in judicial proceedings and in turn, quieting natural biases in situations that require neutrality. After all, Felicity Huffman is just a mom who wanted the best for her child. But if we choose to value this spin over the brute facts of her crime, justice becomes even further out of reach.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 13; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 0)