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College cheating parents prove white privilege is alive and well

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

First there was disgraced “Desperate Housewives” actress Felicity Huffman’s ridiculously low prison sentence of 14 days for her role in the college cheating scandal. Next, wealthy New Yorkers Greg and Marcia Abbott received a one-month sentence. The list of other college-cheating parents with hand-slap prison sentences will continue to grow.

Prosecutors in several cases have demanded lengthier sentences. The Abbotts’ prosecutors asked for eight months. But judges have routinely ignored their slightly tougher sentencing demand. The parents skate by with the light-touch sentences because they are white, wealthy, famous and connected. It’s almost superfluous to say that if the defendants were black, poor nobodies with zero connections the story would be far different The most cursory peep inside any state or federal court on any day glaringly proves that.

The race and class perks of the college cheating parents are essential to get the ridiculously low sentences. However, that’s not the whole story. The loud scream of white privilege in sentencing began in the 1980s and 1990s when the parade of bankers and corporate CEOs were caught brazenly looting and bilking investors and depositors out of billions in every kind of fraud that could be dreamed up.

Prosecutors and judges were denounced for ladling out relatively light sentences not commensurate with the magnitude of the crimes, the economic damage, and lives wrecked by their white-collar looting. Cries of patently blatant double standards in sentencing and prosecution roared again with the refusal of prosecutors to slap charges on Wall Street investment bigwigs caught cheating investors and depositors during the economic meltdown in 2006. A few examples were made of a handful of former corporate higher-up officials here and there receiving longer sentences; but only a few.

There were squeals from judges, and subsequent court rulings that held that judges should have wide discretion over sentencing for white-collar crooks. Defense attorneys and the wide network of influential friends and associates of wealthy white offenders took the cue. They first urged their clients to cop a plea. Then they bombarded the judges with stacks of letters from influential pals painting defendants as practically the second coming of Mother Teresa and St. Paul. They reminded the courts of all the supposedly great and charitable things they did for the community. There were sob stories professing contrition and promising to mend their ways. Finally, they reminded the judge how their lives and careers were ruined by their arrest and admission of guilt. Wasn’t that punishment enough?

This brings it back to the judges and many prosecutors. They have actively lobbied for a total scrap, or at least a major overhaul, of federal sentencing guidelines. Their argument is always for more flexibility and a change in how white-collar crimes are judged. They want the crimes and the perpetrators to be judged based on the full range of circumstances. That’s a nice way of saying that the crimes may not be as bad in effect, and the individuals that commit them may not be as bad as their crimes, and harsh judgement reflected in the sentencing may not be warranted.

The Abbots are a near-textbook example of how to bend and mangle the sentencing process. They got the obligatory sainthood testimonial letters. They tugged the judge’s heartstring by telling of their daughter’s serious illness and the monumental strain it’s imposed on them and their careers. They claimed virtual ignorance about the nature of the scheme. It takes no imagination to know that their tale of woe, ignorance and personal ruin would cut little ice if the couple were poor and Black or Hispanic.

Numerous studies on judicial attitudes and racial bias, both overt and implicit, have found the bench anything but impartial. Judges make decisions on bail, pretrial motions, evidentiary issues, witness credibility, jury selection and instructions to the jury. Judges also can and do weigh the status of the defendant in the community and the support that he or she gets from notables. This was the case with Huffman, the Abbotts and the other college-cheating parents. Some prosecutors may demand longer sentences for them to send a message, as one put it, that “prison is the only answer for entitlement and criminality.” That message will always crash hard against white privilege. The cheating parents are the best proof of that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst 

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