We need to be careful about how we react to the Felicity Huffman case
OPINION: People may be angry about the light sentence the actress got compared to a Black mother, but there are reasons this is misguided
Last week actress Felicity Huffman was given a 14-day prison sentence for her role in the nation’s largest ever college admissions scandal in which she was convicted of conspiracy to commit mail fraud when she paid $15,000 to have someone give correct SAT answers for her oldest daughter.
Not surprisingly, this fairly short punishment sent off a tidal wave of angered reactions from the public who believed the actress should have been more harshly punished for her crimes. Soon after, people started passing around a meme comparing her to Kelley Williams-Bolar, an Ohio mom who was sentenced to five years in prison for lying about her residency to get her daughter into a better school.
At first blush, the optics make this a compelling argument.
A rich white Hollywood A-list actress pays to get a college admissions advantage for her daughter and only gets two weeks, while a Black woman simply lies about her address to give her child a leg up and is sentenced to half a decade.
There goes the system again, letting a white person off the hook while condemning the rest of us. Right?
Well, not exactly.
While systemic racism and the need for prison reform are issues that I write about extensively, in this specific incident, the facts don’t add up the way many of you are assuming. Instead of this being another glaring case of racial inequality — it quite awkwardly — turned into an example of how the public is quick to spread partial truths, but slow to do their homework and actually make sure what they’re saying is true.
I promise the following column won’t be a drag against whoever shared that meme, but hopefully it is a lesson on due diligence and a reminder about what being an advocate for prison reform actually looks like.
First, lets start with the REAL facts
The first thing off about the Huffman vs Williams-Bolar comparisons is that it’s simply inaccurate.
Some of the memes and posts make it seem as if Williams-Bolar went to jail for five years, while others claim she was put away for three years, but the truth is neither is correct. In actuality, at her sentencing, a judge immediately knocked her punishment down to 10 days, plus 80 hours of community service and three years probation.
That’s it ya’ll. 10 days. Four days less than Huffman.
I point this out to not as a “gotcha” but to illustrate just how easily misinformation gets spread around unchecked by all of us. Are there actual examples of Black women who were thrown in jail and ripped from their families for years over petty, non-violent offenses that their white counterparts would get a slap on the wrist for? Of course.
But Kelley Williams-Bolar is not one of them.
Also, you can’t call out Trump supporters for spewing out false information and falling prey to groupthink, and then turn around and do the very same thing. It serves no one, especially not the 49-year-old mom who recently told the New York Daily News she’s “absolutely shocked” folks even dragged her into this mess to begin with.
Less is more
Another off thing about the public reaction is, people seem to think that because Black people get a lot of prison time, the answer is to throw white folks in jail for unfairly long periods as well, so we can all be miserable together.
Uh… so yeah. Hard pass on that logic, fam.
Prison reform isn’t about throwing more white people in jail, it’s about making it so the system stops incarcerating such a ridiculously large portion of the public, especially Black and Brown people who are disproportionately affected by our vengeful system.
The intelligent response to blind vengeance, isn’t more vengeance; a fact that John Legend had the sense to point out this weekend via Twitter.
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.
— John Legend (@johnlegend) September 14, 2019
“Americans have become desensitized to how much we lock people up,” he continued. “Prisons and jails are not the answer to every bad thing everyone does, but we’ve come to use them to address nearly every societal ill.”
If you’re truly going to advocate for prison reform, do so by championing efforts that let non-violent offenders out of jail.
Case in point: Tanya McDowell, was sentenced to five years in 2012 on felony charges of committing and attempting to commit first-degree larceny in connection with enrolling her child in a school in the neighborhood of her babysitter. To add insult to injury, she was also homeless at the time.
Would throwing Huffman in jail for five years as well somehow help McDowell retroactively get a shorter sentence? Would it give her back the years she lost? Or guarantee that another woman of color is spared the same fate? Of course not.
This tit-for-tat need to see non violent white offenders thrown in jail just as egregiously as we are is purely emotional. But it very decidedly has nothing to do with actual prison reform.
7 years ago, homeless mom Tanya McDowell got 5 years in prison for enrolling her son in a school outside her listed district.
Today, wealthy actress Felicity Huffman got 14 days for paying $15K to rig her daughter’s SAT scores. Huffman says she’s “deeply ashamed.” pic.twitter.com/J6UxEkwWDL
— AJ+ (@ajplus) September 13, 2019
Then there are the white apologists
On one end of the “Ya’ll got this f***ed up” spectrum are the emotional folks who want to see everybody thrown in jail at the same rate as Black people. I’ve already explained why that’s silly and actually serves no one.
But on the other extreme end of the argument are the white apologists, from the Ben Carson School of Cooning, who think Huffman is a damsel in distress who we all need to applaud for doing something as basic as peeping that the jig was up.
Of course she admitted she was wrong, she got caught. Only a seasoned scammer and/or a sociopath would still claim to be innocent well after a mountain of evidence was splashed on every media site in the country (side-eye to Lori Loughlin).
While I don’t think throwing Huffman in jail for years on end makes sense, I also don’t have any intention of giving her credit for knowing better than to deny the obvious. But apparently, CNN contributor Joey Jackson disagrees and seems to think the actress is a patron saint who we should all be gushing over as some sort of alabaster beacon of moral fortitude.
At least that’s the impression one gets from reading his painfully naive op-ed about her sentencing.
“Huffman’s conduct following the exposure of these crimes has exemplified grace, contrition, remorse and acceptance of responsibility. Instead of making endless excuses, trying to justify her behavior, and directing blame at others, she has owned her actions. That matters,” Jackson states. Which to be fair, is true. It’s best not to continue lying after the court is clear you’re guilty as hell.
But then he opines, “If there is one thing that our system of justice values heavily, it is a criminal defendant who takes responsibility and owns up to their transgressions,” and later adds, “those who respect the system will be respected by it — through judicial fairness, reason and rationality.”
Sir, what the hell are you talking about? What system is this? Please point me to it cause we must be living in different astral planes. Because in the America where I live, Black and Brown people respect the system, own up to their mistakes, and still get locked up (or worse killed) by a racially biased justice system.
I don’t want us to be an angry mob, but we also can’t fall prey to pretending like the system isn’t broke as hell either. The glaring oversimplifications in that piece — and those who carry those sentiments — literally had me seeing red. I say this as someone who has written for CNN and took the responsibility of speaking on a platform that big quite seriously.
Let’s keep it one hundred, the optics of watching a Black man caping for a white woman who was actually guilty of the crime she was accused of, just tastes funny in general. I hope he had that same energy when all those Black moms who were in similar situations got thrown under the bus by the same system he swears is so fair.
But before I get any more annoyed, lets quickly sum up what we’ve learned today:
- Always fact check everything, even if you really want to believe it on sight. Because unfortunately, these days EVERY body is a bit of an emotional wreck and misinformation is at a high.
- Prison reform is about setting people free not locking even more of them up. And yes, that includes rich white folks too. We want a country where jail time isn’t the go to answer for every damn thing.
- And lastly, don’t be a coon.
Keep these three things in mind before you post about the next criminal justice related “hot topic” and you’ll already be way ahead of half the internet.
Follow writer Blue Telusma on Instagram at @bluecentric