Anik Joshi: Felicity Huffman and the criminal justice we deserve

Wednesday, October 2, 2019 - 5:02pm

Felicity Huffman, who plays Lynette in “Desperate Housewives,” was sentenced in early September for her role in the college admissions scam. For those of you that don’t remember, that was when the University of Southern California (and a few other selective schools) vaulted to the front pages of The Wall Street Journal and other newspapers for taking bribes for admissions spots. 

Now, Huffman has been sentenced for her actions in helping the Trojans beclown themselves yet again, to 14 days in the slammer, one year of probation, a $30,000 fine and a requirement that she wear Stanford gear for the next eight months. That last one is a lie, but the rest of it is true. Upon reading her sentence, I was struck by a couple of things.

First, it seemed like a fair sentence to me. I obviously think the actions of the parents were pretty shameful but, at the end of the day, these actions didn’t really hurt anyone. You could make a case that not getting into some of those schools had injurious effects or devalued your degree and — indicating the desperate need for tort reform — you could even file a lawsuit along those lines

However, you should do none of those things because, ultimately, Huffman got sentenced in a manner that was pretty fair relative to her crime. She’s not a murderer – why treat her like one? This principle should be applied to more than just Huffman, though. For example, when Tanya McDowell used her son’s babysitter’s address to register her son in school, she absolutely should not have gotten five years in prison. 

McDowell and Huffman’s respective cases illustrate a number of things, but two to point out are the obvious racial difference and the inefficiency of criminal justice. Both of these crimes were committed by mothers and both were in the educational field and, to be honest, neither one needs a five-year sentence. I’m open to the argument that neither one needs a sentence at all, which brings me to point out the obvious inefficiencies here. Keeping people locked up is not cheap and, all in all, is a pretty bad use of state resources. Decades of just throwing homeless people behind bars has yet to yield positive results and yet we continue as if we have a collective memory span than a fruit fly. Instead of wasting taxpayer resources on an endless scheme of locking up nonviolent offenders along with the less fortunate, there should be investments made in rehabilitation and social services as those have much better returns on investment for the community and much better results for those who utilize them. 

Second, this made me think about Lori Loughlin and her case. She reportedly regrets not taking a plea deal early on and deciding to go to court, because she and her husband got hit with additional charges after that. And, since Huffman got prison time, she almost certainly will as well. It seems unfair that choosing to go trial will cause negative impacts out of the gate, as we all have a Sixth Amendment right to a speedy and public trial. However, in practice, what happened to Loughlin is the norm. Defendants who choose to plead not guilty and go to trial routinely receive harsher punishments than those who take plea deals, and this is a well known threat to induce confessions – innocence be damned. 

Huffman and Loughlin (and the rest of the clown car) did something that’s bad. You could look at it a positive light if you want my against-the-grain take but not many people do (for obvious reasons). Neither of these two women are convenient avatars for the injustices that are part and parcel of the criminal justice system but that does not mean that we should ignore the lessons that we can take from this event.

First, USC is a bit of a joke. Second, Huffman getting a light sentence for a pretty light crime is a good thing, and if more people got those kinds of sentences, it would generally be a better world and making these sentences harder to get through a trial is on the merits, bad. A nation ruled by lawyers will always be procedural hell and there is no reason at all to encourage that. Third, Loughlin choosing to go to trial and appearing to get a harsher punishment for it is not a good thing. We all have a right to a fair trial, and it shouldn’t be unnecessarily abrogated. People will say that we shouldn’t care about Huffman’s and Loughlin’s run-ins with justice, and while I see their point, I disagree. The people who usually deal with that system are far less privileged, far less rich and oftentimes far less white. If some of the lessons from these cases can be applied a little more broadly, it’d be a much better country for all of us.

Anik Joshi can be reached at anikj@umich.edu.