The current college admission scandal involving several wealthy and even celebrity defendants is an example of the media and wider conversation turning true legal matters into a sort of public soap opera. These federal crime cases deserve more than a predictable punchline. Let’s talk about the moral messages and fairness regarding the prosecution strategies and sentencing in the federal cases.
The Story So Far
There are 52 defendants who were federally indicted in this case, most of them parents who tried to get their children into college through fraudulent test scores or paying to have them recruited into college athletic programs. The defendants have faced federal charges of bribery, conspiracy to commit mail fraud, money laundering, and honest services mail fraud. This also means they could face double digit prison sentences in federal prison.
The most famous of the defendants in the federal cases are actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin; they both represent the different defense routes taken in these cases. Huffman is an example of someone having taken a plea deal. She already served time for pleading guilty to paying for altered test scores. She was sentenced to 14 days but served 12 days in prison. Another defendant was sentenced to one month in prison for paying for a better ACT score for his child.
And this begs the age old question: is it fair that white collar offenders tend to receive more lenient sentences than other types of federal defendants and other types of federal crime cases? As a federal crimes lawyer in Los Angeles, it is readily apparent that defendants tend to receive more severe prison sentences for drug trafficking, child pornography, and/or RICO charges. Is this fair?
Strategy and Ethics
This question must be considered in the context of prosecutorial discretion and ethics. Federal prosecutors routinely threaten to add new charges to a defendant’s federal case as what some have called a scare tactic. It is a way to try to scare defendants into taking plea deals they didn’t want or maybe don’t deserve to take.
Despite these scare tactics, Loughlin has taken the bolder route of pleading not guilty to her criminal charges and, therefore, awaiting trial. This defense strategy could lead to no prison time if she is found not guilty during trial. The other side of that coin is a guilty verdict, which without a plea deal, could mean much more prison time than several days. And as a result of this decision, she may experience what criminal defense lawyers in Los Angeles refer to as a “trial tax.” – facing increased penalties (more charges, a lengthier prison sentence) simply for exercising her constitutional right to trial.
Has Advantage Become Disadvantage For Defendants?
Cases like this college admission scandal become widely known not just because they involve the wealthy and the famous. There is usually an underpinning of larger legal and societal themes at the core of the issue. In this case, the theme is the societal advantage of wealth.
First, there is the societal advantage that these wealthy parents have and allegedly used their money to secure their kids a leg up into school and the world thereafter. The money helped them help their kids in ways less affluent parents can’t help their own.
Their money helps these same people afford a criminal defense that will more likely help them avoid a conviction or severe sentencing. Less wealthy parents charged with varying types of crime throughout the country deserve a proper criminal defense but can’t always afford to fight like those in these cases.
The judge in this case, Judge Indira Talwani, however, seems set on making an example of the defendants in the college admission cases. She says she hopes incarcerating the men and women will serve as a deterrent for others out there who might be tempted to engage in this same “entitled” behavior. This also begs the question: is it fair to make an example of these defendants just because they are wealthy and famous?
Through today’s constant media buzz, it is easy to think of certain so-called “scandals” as mere pop culture conversation. But these “scandals” are not a joke to the people involved, and they are not a joke in terms of the bigger picture of the ethical, legal matters the notorious cases present.
As a criminal defense lawyer who handles lots of cases involving federal fraud crimes, I have seen how these cases can be twisted to bully defendants. An experienced defense lawyer like me can help see through the prosecution’s strategy in order to best identify the wisest route for my client.