Sentencing Dilemmas

I suppose punishment should fit crimes but what exactly does that mean? Do you punish based on harm? On intent? On the amount of money it cost to commit the crime? What if the crime actually helped people instead of hurting them?

Normally, we don’t have to worry about these sorts of philosophical questions because penalties are pretty clearly set in law. Why bother to think when we have rules?

But a federal judge in Massachusetts had to consider these questions (or at least should have considered them) when deciding the fates of people of accused of bribing people to get their kids into college.

Apparently, the options being debated were letting parent defendants go because they were really just dumb victims, fining them based on what they forked over in the bribe, or sending everybody off to jail for a relatively equal amount of time because they caused similar harms no matter how much they paid.

Should harm to victims be considered — if there are victims? And who are the victims?

On Friday, the judge sentenced actress Felicity Huffman to 14 days in prison, imposed a $30,000 fine, and ordered 250 hours of community service. The discussion then got a little weirder. This is a sentence from The New York Times coverage: “Looming over Ms. Huffman’s sentencing were questions about fairness, and whether she and the other mostly white parents in the case would be treated more leniently than poor or nonwhite defendants accused of educational fraud.”

That’s the looming question? Are there a lot of poor families bribing school officials? No wonder they’re poor.

Maybe we should be comparing the sentence to the sentences for purveyors of opioids and subprime mortgages, but I guess we can’t, because there weren’t any.

Whether the sentence was fair or not, there are more punishment options — or maybe reward options — that should have been discussed.

For example, why aren’t these parents getting credit for taking expensive college spots away from deserving but less-prosperous students? Those students were more than likely a lot smarter than the defendants’ kids. Why ruin their lives with crippling student loan debt when they can go to much cheaper state schools and still end up doing better than those dumb rich kids?

We have a terrible student loan debt crisis in this country. We can solve it by filling expensive schools with students who don’t deserve to be there and keeping out deserving students who would run up their debt and damage their career prospects. This, in turn, will so anger the best professors that they’ll jump ship and move to schools with actual intelligent students.

The paying parents help the expensive schools too. Not only do the bribes support hard-working academicians and university programs, but the bribers, as parents of alumni (or of students who dropped out), also become potential donors.

The argument against home confinement for the defendants was that they have pretty nice homes. It’s not much of a punishment, but is prison really a fitting alternative? No, the sensible punishment is requiring the parents to live with their kids on campus and go to their classes.

This will not only humiliate the children — and destroy any prospect of a social life — but also teach the defendants that maybe that bribe wasn’t such a good investment.

Sentencing training. Surprisingly, an important issue has not been discussed in this bribery case: acting.

Felicity Huffman is a really good actress — one of my favorites. At her sentencing hearing, she got to choke up and claim to be deeply regretful.

Was she really?

OK, most people are regretful once they get caught, but really good actresses would seem to have an advantage.

If justice is going to be fair, we need to guarantee that all defendants are given access to theatrical training.

Final bribery thought. Don’t you think the fines in these cases should go into a scholarship fund?

Assumption of risk? A prominent law firm last week filed a complaint in Los Angeles Superior Court against a former client for not paying legal fees. The fees were for representing the defendant in a fee arbitration with a prominent national law firm.

Perhaps someone should have known better.

I can’t wait to see who defends this guy next.

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