September 15, 2019

VALDETARO | For the Criminal Justice System, Just Another Dirty Band-Aid

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On Friday, September 13, actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison for paying $15,000 to have her daughter’s SAT altered as part of a wide-ranging college admissions scandal. Across Twitter and on shows such as The View, many reacted with indignation at a sentence they viewed to be too lenient, especially when contrasted to two black women — Kelley Williams-Bolar and Tonya McDowell — who also gamed the education system, but were sentenced to 10 days and five years in jail, respectively, for sending their children to school districts they didn’t reside in. In fact, both the prosecutor and judge in Felicity Huffman’s case argued that not sentencing Huffman to any jail time would be an injustice to Williams-Bolar.

Although the prosecutor’s and judge’s diagnosis of potential injustice is correct, their assessment of the cause and the solution is not. Huffman walking free wouldn’t have been an injustice to Williams-Bolar and McDowell, nor is the injustice done to the two women corrected by sentencing Huffman to a two-week stint. Injustice was done to both of these women when they were prosecuted in the first place. Injustice can only be fixed by questioning why we turn to the criminal justice system to solve so many of our problems in the first place.

Without a doubt, there is a disparity between the sentence that Huffman received and the sentences that Williams-Bolar and McDowell did. Huffman is a wealthy and famous actress who, as the judge pointed out in sentencing, was trying to take further tilt a playing field that was already near-vertical in her favor. Williams-Bolar moved her children to a different school district because her home had been burglarized and she was worried about their safety during the day before she got home from work. Her five-year sentence was suspended to 10 days, of which she served nine. McDowell sent her son to a different school district in order to get him a better public education. Her 12-year sentence was suspended to five.

This disparity is emblematic of a criminal justice system with bias against black and poor people at its core. Modern police forces evolved from patrols and constables meant to keep slaves and Native Americans in line. It took the federal government until 1833 to outlaw debtors’ prisons (an institution effectively returning today). After the Civil War, Jim Crow laws in the South criminalized not having a job and attempting to move without an employer’s permission, intending to return freedmen to bondage. These inequalities persist today, as black people are imprisoned at five times the rate of white people, nearly half of people serving life prison sentences are black, and prosecutors are more likely to seek harsher penalties for black defendants than they are for whites.

What the prosecutor and judge crucially missed, though, is that inequality in the criminal justice system starts before a Kelley Williams-Bolar or a Tonya McDowell arrive in a courtroom. When McDowell’s case was starting, multiple members of the local school board stated there were other students from out of district, but they were normally just unenrolled. Why prosecute her, especially when — as a homeless individual — she likely wouldn’t be able to pay the restitution the school district sought? Given that Williams-Bolar had unenrolled her children from the school district her father lived nearly a year-and-a-half before, why prosecute her?

Per the mayor of the town where McDowell sent her son and the judge who presided over Williams-Bolar’s case, the answer to both of these questions was deterrence. And yet, research shows that deterrence comes not from the severity of a punishment, but from the expectation it will be handed out. Due to the arbitrary nature of these punishments, that makes deterrence seem less likely.

More important than the fact that other parents aren’t that likely to be deterred, though, is the fact that prosecution was the mechanism for deterrence at all. In both of these cases, incarceration was a dirty Band-Aid used to cover up the gaping wounds of social inequality. Instead of recognizing that Williams-Bolar did what she did because of safety fears and poor schools, and addressing those concerns, resources were used to incarcerate her. Instead of recognizing that McDowell was trying to get a better education, resources were used to incarcerate her.

There are more systematic examples of this instinct for incarceration. In schools across the country, police officers are increasingly called about disciplinary issues that were once solved by staff, leading to the arrest and prosecution of students. In a staggering proportion of cities, homelessness is criminalized through bans on sleeping in public, asking for money and more, with the punishment of jail time. Nationwide, over 400,000 people behind bars have a mental illness, with Chicago’s Cook County Jail operating what is effectively the largest mental health hospital in the nation.

Every single one of these cases matters because being behind bars for even one night is a traumatic and life-altering event. Not only were nine nights in jail horrifying to Williams-Bolar, but the presence of a felony conviction on her record prevented her from returning to be a teaching assistant until Ohio’s governor reduced her sentence to a misdemeanor. More generally, research suggests that spending any amount of time behind bars for one offense actually increases the chances of spending more time for a different offense.

Felicity Huffman wasn’t the only perpetrator in this case. But as one of the few who plead guilty, it’s likely that others — including fellow actress Lori Loughlin — will receive harsher sentences. If they do, we shouldn’t treat it as justice for Kelley Williams-Bolar or Tonya McDowell. It’ll be just another dirty Band-Aid.

Giancarlo Valdetaro is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at gvaldetaro@cornellsun.com. Far Above runs every other Monday this semester.