Cheating at Admissions; Cheating at Justice

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March 25, 2019


A Message From Our Executive Director,
Phil Telfeyan

The college admissions scandal -- while shocking in some ways -- has revealed what most Americans have always known: the rich have many advantages when it comes to higher education. As bad (and as illegal) as it is to bribe admissions officers, SAT proctors, and athletics coaches to get one’s own child admitted to a prestigious university, it is only the newest way we’ve learned that some wealthy parents have of manipulating the admissions system to their advantage.

When Jared Kushner’s father made a $2.5 million donation to Harvard University -- coincidentally at the same time Jared was applying to college -- the wealthy applicant clearly had a leg up against his peers. Those other applicants may have been just as qualified as Jared Kushner, but if their parents couldn’t afford a $2.5 million donation, they lost out on that route of charming an admissions office.

The spectrum of ways of buying admission into college is a blurry one. It includes outright bribery -- which is a crime -- and many non-criminal acts like making large donations, hiring high-priced SAT tutors, or paying professional editors who will turn your kid’s mediocre college admissions essay into a work of art. While these approaches vary in how our society views them and whether they are criminally illegal, they all have one thing in common: they give the rich an advantage that isn’t merit-based, while putting poor applicants at a disadvantage that is purely wealth-based.

Our justice system has the same set of wealth-based inequalities but, unfortunately, virtually all of the advantages the rich have in the justice system are legally codified. Many of the wealthy crooks who participated in bribery for college admissions have been able to by their way out of jail.

Money bail is perhaps the most blatant example of wealth-based discrimination in our justice system, and it is completely legal. But it is as wrong as bribery, and it is just as irrational. How would we feel if two people were charged with the same crime, and one sat in jail pending trial while the other was released because he bribed the judge with $500,000? That’s corruption.

But when the ringleader of the college admissions scandal posted $500,000 to get released pretrial, our legal system didn’t bat an eye. William Rick Singer -- who founded the companies that facilitated bribes for admissions -- was offered a price-tag for his freedom. The judge told him to pay $500,000 to get out of federal jail. He paid it. Now he walks freely while the case proceeds.

Felicity Huffman was taken into FBI custody, and she was also given a price-tag for her freedom. The judge said she could walk free for $250,000. She paid it. Now she too is free while her case proceeds.

Because it’s legally codified, we don’t consider the payment of money bail to be a bribe. But it’s clearly an advantage the rich have over everyone else, and it’s an inequality in the justice system that we shouldn’t stand for. What makes these cases even more egregious is that Singer, Huffman, and other wealthy defendants don’t even have to turn over any money. Just being rich is enough.

Singer posted a property bond, which is an invisible lien on his brother’s home to secure the bond. Singer never had to write a check or give any money, and his brother’s home isn’t seized; it’s still his brother’s home. Huffman only had to sign a signature bond for her $250,000 money bail. She didn’t have to pay any of it; she only promised to pay it if she skips court.

The rich have advantages in college admissions, and they have advantages in the justice system. Both situations are tragic inequalities, but the wealth-based inequality in the justice system is simply unacceptable. The point of justice is that it is equal; that’s why the slogan of the U.S. Supreme Court is “equal justice under law.” If justice isn’t equal, 
it isn’t justice.

Right now, we’re stuck with an unequal justice system that doesn’t resemble the ideals it is supposed to represent. Only when rich and poor are treated equally under the law will we have a justice system deserving to be called justice.