Last week, Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman was sentenced as part of Operation Varsity Blues, the college admissions scandal, receiving 14 days in prison, a $30,000 fine, 250 hours of community service, and one year’s probation. Having pleaded guilty back in May to paying $15,000 for her daughter’s SAT score to be improved, Huffman would have expected a lower sentence, which this certainly was – a fortnight in jail is a long way off from the four months predicted by many newspapers and legal experts since the scandal first broke. For an Emmy-award winning actress, this has certainly been a fall from grace, placing her future job prospects and celebrity status in serious jeopardy. For a woman convicted of paying her daughter’s way into a high-ranking US university, however, is it enough?
To me, the scandal is so interesting because it’s so hard to feel sympathy for people who have everything going for them (the money to pay for the best schools, SAT tutors for their children, etc.) and still feel the need to cheat to get ahead. One of the reasons it’s caused so much outrage globally is because it challenges the very notion of “meritocracy”, proving that wealth and important connections really can get you everywhere, including some of the most prestigious colleges in the US. Parallels have been drawn to people in less privileged communities falsifying their address to send their kids to better schools, and being sent to prison for it – with this this mind, why should Huffman and other (mostly white) wealthy parents be treated any differently in the eyes of the law? A two-week stint in jail feels lenient when you consider the months, even years, that people in poorer communities spend behind bars for using a friend’s address to give their kids a better chance at life. Why is Huffman’s case any different?
But having said that, I’m not entirely convinced that a prison sentence is the answer in this case. As well as shining a spotlight on the lengths to which the privileged will go to cheat a system that already works in their favour, the case has provoked a debate about America’s justice system in general. Many have questioned whether incarceration as an across-the-board punishment really holds up these days, especially with white-collar crimes such as Huffman’s. Is it necessary to imprison someone who isn’t a physical danger to society, who might be better able to make amends for her actions in other ways, such as paying for scholarships to prestigious colleges or funding SAT-prep programmes? While it is undeniably important to hold people (especially those in the public eye) accountable for their actions, is imprisoning them really the best way to do that? John Legend, singer and founder of Free America, a campaign designed to “transform America’s criminal justice system”, according to its twitter bio, recently tweeted his disapproval over the sentencing, saying: “Prisons and jails are not the answer to every bad thing everyone does, but we’ve come to use them to address nearly every societal ill,” adding that “no one in our nation will benefit from the 14 days an actress will serve for cheating in college admissions.”
Incarceration is one way of proving that celebrities are not above the law, but I do think Legend has a point about its benefits for society being limited. Why not, as has been suggested by news outlets over the past few months, get her to pay for a group of disadvantaged applicants’ SAT tutoring, or fund a number of scholarships and bursaries to the elite colleges that remain so out-of-reach to people who don’t benefit from Huffman’s privilege? As of April 2018, the USA has the highest incarceration rate in the world, costing the federal government $265 billion a year. I really wonder if locking up an actress for cheating in college admissions is the best use of that money, and if it might not be better overall to commit her to helping fix the problem of which she is part in a different way.