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September 16, 2019

Just some (of many) perspectives on Felicity Huffman's sentencing

Lots of folks have lots of views on what we should make of the the sentencing of Felicity Huffman late last week to 14 days in incarceration in the college bribery scandal. Here are just a sampling of some of the pieces that caught my eye:

From CNN, "John Legend says prison is not always the answer after Felicity Huffman's sentence"

From Walter Palvo at Forbes, "Felicity Huffman And America's Failing Criminal Justice System"

From Fox News, "Felicity Huffman's 14 day prison sentence in college admissions scam sparks outrage on social media"

From Fox News, "Felicity Huffman's prison sentence 'more of a burden on the jail system' than on the actress: expert"

From David Oscar Marcus at The Hill, "Felicity Huffman's 14-Day Sentence is Unjust — Because It's Too High"

From Ellen Podgor at White Collar Crime Prof Blog, "More Varsity Blues — Privilege and Perspective"

To add my two cents, I will just say that I continue to be disappointed at our system's and our society's general failure to treat and view any sentencing terms other than imprisonment as "real punishment." Of course, most persons subject to any form of criminal investigation and prosecution will report that the process itself is very often a significant punishment and so too can be any period of supervision and the array of collateral consequences (both formal and informal and often lifetime) that always accompany a criminal conviction. But, problematically, the perception persists that anything other than prison, and often anything less than a lengthy period in prison, is but a trifle.

Prior related posts:

September 16, 2019 at 10:41 AM | Permalink


There is no doubt that sentencing is among the most difficult things a judge does. We are inevitably second guessed Among the things that make sentencing difficult is the false choice that jail (or prison) is one choice and doing nothing is the other choice. Judges can be far more creative. Restorative justice does work and in appropriate cases community service is a perfectly appropriate alternative.

Posted by: Judge Kevin S Burke | Sep 16, 2019 11:05:18 AM

Thanks for this comment, Judge. Do you have any suggestions for how we ensure the public does not view alternative punishments as "doing nothing"?

Posted by: Doug B | Sep 16, 2019 11:43:18 AM

I agree with the Judge - and having worked as a US Probation Officer for more than a decade, I can attest federal judges feel the same way. We meet with them prior to sentencing in every case and hash out all of the circumstances - especially the 3553(a) factors. Have you seen or read a single article where this is explained or even addressed - nope! There is never enough coverage on a sentencing - other than the sentence - especially in the Huffman case. You have to know the case, the details, and in all honestly you have to be in the weeds (especially this one with the loss issue - which I believe he US Probation Office correctly determined no loss). News articles don't do the sentencing justice and rarely have they been able to.

On a side note, in my experience when a defendant gets such a low sentence (usually less than 2 months), they can often do the time at the local jail that the BOP has a contract with. Sending someone to the BOP for 14 days carries with it an incredible amount of work and prep and of course release plans, etc. That's just my experience.

Posted by: Atomicfrog | Sep 16, 2019 12:36:39 PM

What about the crooks who TOOK the bribe? The real criminals offered their influence in exchange for mad money and it looks like they'll get away with it.

Posted by: Sock Monkey | Sep 16, 2019 3:48:09 PM

Admittedly I did not read all of the articles, but just examining the headlines:

CNN: Who cares what John Legend thinks? I am more interested in my gardener’s take on the issue. I will ask him this Thursday. (Sadly I did read this article trying to understand why it was newsworthy, I still don’t understand).

Forbes: The idea that a two week sentence for the extremely rare circumstance of bribery in college admissions is somehow evidence of a broken criminal justice system is laughably absurd.

Fox: Outrage on social media? On a day ending with the letter “y” no less. Tell me something new or why I should care.

Fox: Yes, the federal prison system will be brought to its knees processing Felicity Huffman. Believe me, she will remember it much longer than the federal prison system will.

The Hill: Too high? Only someone who doesn’t believe it is criminal at all would say such a thing. If the conduct warrants a felony conviction then it should not be uncommon to warrant some custody time. Believe me, Ms. Huffman’s peers are talking about this and they don’t want to go to prison for 14 days.

White Collar Crime Blog: This blog says “Bottom line - what were the parents all thinking - really? The criminal justice system is not the answer to the problem here.” Bottom line, the article provides no answer except to say “If you want to stop the criminal conduct, punish the party who made the crime possible.” Well, disagree if you want, but bribery does require someone to pay the bribe.

I agree the process is punishment, but Huffman (poor thing) didn’t endure much of that.

Posted by: David | Sep 16, 2019 11:35:37 PM

I am clearly a proponent of community service but I understand the fear that such a sentence might be perceived as “too light.” First, I think that defining what the defendant will do helps explain the why that alternative. For example we have in my court a community service alternative called Grandmothers Circles. Women offenders make jewelry which is then sold and the proceeds go to poor women & children in Africa. It is so rewarding that offenders sometimes do more than required. No one asks for a few more days in jail. Second in a high visibility case such as Ms Huffman’s the explanation of why this alternative needs to be succinct and quotable.

Posted by: Judge Kevin S Burke | Sep 18, 2019 12:26:06 PM

Bottom line, this is a message from the courts to all the other defendants: "She was the 'least' culpable among you, given she paid the least and participated the least. She's going to prison. So are you. Each and every one of you. She got the lowest sentence. You will get more. Plead now or pay the price."

Posted by: scribe | Sep 19, 2019 12:41:12 PM

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