The Bar-On Brief: Reaction to Felicity Huffman sentence is misguided

Felicity Huffman — the first person charged in the college admissions scheme — was sentenced to two weeks in federal prison Sept. 13. She will also pay a $30,000 fine and commit to 250 hours of community service. 

Many on Twitter went berserk over what they called a light sentence and a failure of the justice system to apply the law equally to all citizens. Several blue checkmarks on the site gave examples of objectively less severe crimes being punished with objectively much harsher sentences. 

These pundits are angry that Huffman did not receive a stringent enough punishment because of her white privilege and high social class. While certainly true, framing the issue this way misses the mark. The justice system isn’t wrong to sentence Huffman “lightly;” it is wrong in punishing others too harshly. Yes, we should be talking about the inequities in the justice system, but the focus needs to be on those harmed unfairly, not benefited unfairly. It’s the media’s responsibility to report and bring to light cases when prosecutors overcharge, when judges over-sentence and when juries convict despite insufficient evidence. 

The Huffman case brings to light a fundamental question about the justice system’s purpose: Is it a means to a better society, or does it exist solely to punish and seek vengeful retribution against criminals? Suggesting these two be true simultaneously is misguided. California’s prison system is administered by an agency dubbed the “Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,” but prison cells don’t correct wrongs. And, in most cases, they surely don’t rehabilitate. Prisons are a reflection of our society. They exist because our society values revenge over forgiveness, coercion over correction and penalty over mercy.  

Punishing someone does not benefit society. Study after study shows that harsher punishment does not deter crime. And the act of punishing clearly fails to rehabilitate because over 60% of California inmates will return to prison within three years of being released. A 2019 report released by the California State Auditor acknowledged that the state’s attempt at rehabilitation has failed well over half of the inmates released in 2017-18. It is illogical to argue that locking someone behind bars for dozens of years and then throwing them back out into a radically changed society with a few hundred bucks and a permanent criminal record will do them any good.  

Malcolm X put it best when he wrote, “I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms.” 

Of course, prisons serve an important purpose in keeping the public safe, especially from violent criminals. But the reality is that the public would be just as safe if we spent as much money keeping people out of prison as we spend putting people in prison. Few people truly deserve prison. Too often, the justice system looks at the actions someone did as opposed to the individual’s motivations. An analysis of a person’s motivation will typically show incitement stemming from drug problems, mental health issues, abuse or a different societal failure against that individual. Rarely is someone truly “bad to the bone” with the only solution being locking him away.  

Sending Huffman to prison doesn’t really benefit society. It’s also unlikely it will deter others from acting similarly in the future. Societal pressure and condemnation will prove to have a more potent impact on the college admissions scandal than any number of days behind bars. 

John Legend summed this up well — and made it fit with 280 characters: “I get why everyone gets mad when rich person X gets a short sentence and poor person of color Y gets a long one. The answer isn’t for X to get more; it’s for both of them to get less (or even none!!!). We should level down not up.”

Shauli Bar-On is a junior writing about sociopolitical issues. His column, “The Bar-On Brief,” runs every other Tuesday.