Felicity Huffman's 14-day sentence in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal is shedding light on celebrity and racial privilege in the United States, according to many who were outraged by her minimal sentence. The actress, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud for her part in the admissions scandal received a far lighter sentence to another woman who simply enrolled her son in a neighboring school district in hopes of him receiving a better education.
In 2011, Tanya McDowell of Bridgeport, Connecticut was living in her van and used her babysitter's address to enroll her then 5-year-old son in a school outside of her district, according to the Connecticut Post. She was charged with first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny and was sentenced to five years in jail, including time served concurrently for unrelated drug charges that were laid after her school district case.
In a 2017 interview with The Hour, McDowell states that she didn't even know she was breaking the law by enrolling her son in a different school district. “Never once was I aware of this criteria or policy in regards to you sending your child to the wrong school system,” she said.
A Salon article discussing the "systemic racism" when looking at both the Huffman case and McDowell's writes, "Police investigated McDowell and charged her with fraud. A year later she pleaded guilty to first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny; for these offenses, she received a five-year sentence. Before McDowell started serving it out, she was charged with selling narcotics to an undercover police officer, an offense that killed her community support."
She said that while she was in jail her son lived with his grandmother, never missed a day of school and even made honor roll, reinforcing the decision she made to prioritize his education. “I would still do it all over again because I haven’t been let down,” McDowell stated. “My son exceeded all of my expectations.” She also said she was happy to do it to blaze the trail for other parents. “I’m not only doing it for Andrew,” McDowell said. “I’m doing it for any other parent, any other child out there that has the potential to exceed and excel at a certain level and is just being deprived, period.”
According to the Salon article, "McDowell was ultimately given 12 years, to be suspended after she served five, and followed by five years of probation; the narcotic sentence to run concurrently with a five-year sentence she had already received in the Norwalk school case."
People can't help but point out the huge difference between McDowell's sentence and Huffman's, understandably concluding that status, celebrity and race had a huge impact on both sentences.
Singer John Legend took to social media to comment on both women's sentences, writing that neither jail terms will achieve anything. "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," Legend began his tweet rant, calling out prison time as the go-to answer for "nearly every societal ill."
Americans have become desensitized to how much we lock people up. 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.— John Legend (@johnlegend) September 14, 2019
"It's insane we locked a woman up for 5 years for sending her kid to the wrong school district. Literally everyone involved in that decision should be ashamed of themselves," he wrote, seemingly commenting on McDowell's sentence.
It's insane we locked a woman up for 5 years for sending her kid to the wrong school district. Literally everyone involved in that decision should be ashamed of themselves— John Legend (@johnlegend) September 14, 2019
He then went on to comment on Huffman's sentence writing, "And no one in our nation will benefit from the 14 days an actress will serve for cheating in college admissions. We don't need to lock people up for any of this stuff."
And no one in our nation will benefit from the 14 days an actress will serve for cheating in college admissions. We don't need to lock people up for any of this stuff.— John Legend (@johnlegend) September 14, 2019
In an opinion essay written for Salon, editor D. Watkins writes that "Both McDowell and Huffman attempted to use the tools they had at their disposal in order to secure better educational opportunities for their respective children. And yet when examining the disparity in how those crimes are punished, it becomes clear that while on paper they are similar, in the eyes of the court they are apparently deserving of very different punishments."
Correction Note 2019/09/17 @18:10: Previous headline "Mom Sentenced To 5 Years In Prison For Using Friend's Address To Enroll Son In School" was edited to reflect more of the story. The original headline of this article falsely read that Tanya McDowell was sentenced to five years in prison only a after larceny conviction for falsifying her son’s address to get him into a neighboring school district. The sentence, which came after a plea agreement, actually was a result of 3 crimes to which she had pleaded guilty: Larceny from the school address, as well as two counts of sale of narcotics.