Felicity Huffman’s light sentence after the college admissions scandal isn’t surprising in this country

Author Michael Arceneaux discusses the role of white privilege in Felicity Huffman’s sentencing after her involvement in the college admissions scandal.

Shortly before her sentencing on Friday in Boston, a source close to actress Felicity Huffman told Us Weekly that she was “prepared and ready to face sentencing” for her role in the college admissions scandal. Huffman, however, was “hoping to avoid serving any time [behind] bars.” A separate source offered a similar sentiment to People. “She is willing to pay whatever price she has to pay for breaking the law,” the source explained. “She is committed to making amends to the public and to the educational community and giving back in a substantive way.”

Federal prosecutors recommended that Huffman serve one month in prison, 12 years of supervised release, and pay a $20,000 fine for crimes related to Operation Varsity Blues, which revealed the extent to which wealthy families buy their children access into the most elite colleges and universities in the nation. Huffman was specifically charged with paying a college consultant $15,000 to inflate her daughter’s SAT score.

At the sentencing, prosecutors argued, “Imprisonment is needed because this was a considered, deliberate, and purposeful criminal act.” One went on to mention Kelley Williams-Bolar, the Akron mom convicted of lying about her residency to get her daughters into a better school district. “If we respect the rule of law, we should not treat defendants differently because of wealth or status,” they argued.

Huffman’s lawyers asked that she receive one year of probation, 250 hours of community service, and a $20,000 fine. “A sentence of probation is real punishment,” Huffman’s lawyer argued. And he went on to note that Huffman needn’t be punished more severely because of her status. “I’d never suggest Huffman be treated differently because she is wealthy…but by the same token, it can’t be the case that she be treated more harshly because of her financial circumstances,” he said. “That’s not fair.”

“It takes a smooth amount of nerve to be facing jail time for your role in a national scandal and have your lawyer argue that probation is the real punishment.”

It takes a smooth amount of nerve to be facing jail time for your role in a national scandal and have your lawyer argue that probation is the real punishment. It’s even worse to argue that it would be super mean to punish a rich person because they’re rich in a case centered on a person using their wealth to cheat. But I suppose Huffman was the one they decided can only sell shame.

Speaking at the hearing, she said, “I am deeply sorry to the students, parents, colleges, and universities who’ve been impacted by my actions. I am sorry to my daughters Sophia, and Georgia, and I am sorry to my husband Will. I have betrayed them.” The end result was Judge Indira Talwani sentencing Felicity Huffman to 14 days in jail, a fine of $30,000, a year of supervised release, and 250 hours of community service.

The fact that she will have to serve any time is regrettably astonishing. Women like Felicity Huffman—rich, white, famous—don’t typically have to face any real consequences for their perverse use of privilege. Those will likely be the longest 14 days of Felicity Huffman’s life, and yet, that sentencing manages to remain infuriating.
It’s likely that Lori Loughlin, who allegedly paid $500,000 in bribes to get her socialite daughters into University of Southern California as crew recruits, will likely face a harsher fate given she rejected a plea deal. There are plenty of people across social media clamoring for it. However, should Loughlin end up in jail for much longer than Huffman, it would not be an example of justice—so much as it is a lesson on someone not knowing when to admit defeat.

If Loughlin did plead guilty, would she be getting off fairly easy like Felicity Huffman? I have no reason to think otherwise given our justice system and its racial disparities. This week, Crystal Mason appealed her five year conviction for voting illegally in the 2016 election. Mason, a poor Black woman, was sentenced to five years in prison for trying to vote while a rich white woman who conspired to cheat the college admission process by bribing her children’s way in will only go to jail for 14 days.
Or Tanya McDowell, who received a 12-year suspended sentence plus five years probation for sending her child to school in a better district.

While it is not Felicity Huffman’s fault that Americans are collectively over-sentenced, if she is truly committed to making amends with the public and educational community, I hope she uses her money, time, and platform to assist those in this country who truly need a “fair shot.” It’s not as if she has to. After all, ultimately this will end in Huffman—an incredibly talented actress—likely doing a few interviews on a well-crafted comeback trail. Her privilege will always protect her. It did so today.

Here’s hoping Felicity Huffman learns to use her powers for good upon release.

Michael Arceneaux is the New York Times bestselling author of the newly released book I Can’t Date Jesus from Atria Books/Simon & Schuster. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Essence, The Guardian, Mic, and more. Follow him on Twitter.