When news of the college admissions scandal broke in March of 2019, public outrage came pouring in. Celebrities such as Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin had paid large sums of money to falsify high standardized testing scores for their children, cheating the college admissions process. Yet although Americans were angry, they were not surprised. According to a poll conducted by USA Today, 67% of Americans believe that the college admissions process favors individuals from “rich and powerful” backgrounds. Public outrage was mainly focused on the corruption of the college process and the crimes committed by these parents, but an aspect of the case that was received far less coverage was the disparity in sentencing between the wealthy parents involved in the scandal and the sentencing of parents from a lower socioeconomic background in similar cases.
Felicity Huffman, a high-profile actress, confessed to paying a $15,000 bribe to bolster her daughter’s SAT score and only received 14 days in jail, one year of probation, 250 hours of community service, and a $30,000 fine. Tanya McDowell, a homeless mother from Connecticut, received a sentence of five years for sending her son to a better public school in a district that she herself did not live in. While it is important to note that McDowell was also being prosecuted for minor drug offenses, the different outcomes of these two cases is still a clear example of how the criminal justice system favors wealthy defendants over defendants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Typically, wealthy defendants are able to hire private counsel, while poorer defendants are unable to afford private counsel. Instead, poorer defendants are forced to rely on state-appointed, public defenders who are often overburdened with high caseloads. According to a report released by the National Advisory Council on Criminal Justice and Goals, overburdened public defenders are unable to provide poorer defendants the same quality of counsel as private defense attorneys. Furthermore, 70% of public defenders' offices report that “obtaining adequate funding and providing adequate compensation for their attorneys were extremely or very challenging to the ability of their office to provide indigent defense services.” While the American criminal justice system provides all people access to counsel, inadequate funding for public defenders places individuals who are unable to afford their own counsel at a severe disadvantage.
Our criminal justice system has failed to provide individuals with low socioeconomic positions equal justice when it comes to criminal proceedings. In order to live up to America’s promise of “liberty and justice for all,” we must actively push for major reform in our broken, damaging criminal justice system.