Money. Power. Privilege. Rinse. Repeat.
This seems to be the elite’s recipe for handling the American criminal justice system. No matter how egregious and obvious their crimes, people with big bank accounts always seem to avoid being held fully accountable for their actions. Lori Loughlin is just the latest example.
The college admissions scandal recently made headlines again as the “Full House” actress and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, were sentenced to prison. The couple pled guilty for paying the University of Southern California $500,000 in order to get their two daughters in as fake crew recruits. Loughlin received a two-month sentence, while Giannulli will serve five months. They will also pay a combined total of $400,000 in fines and complete community service hours once they leave prison.
While the couple will be doing time and paying hefty fines, their sentences simply do not match their crimes. Loughlin and Giannulli knowingly participated in a calculated scheme to get their children admitted to a prestigious university. They took posed pictures of their non-athlete daughters on rowing machines, shelled out half a million dollars in bribe money to USC and then celebrated when their dirty tricks resulted in acceptance letters. The charges they faced could have resulted in a maximum of 20 years in prison, but they will both serve less than six months.
There Was Hope for Justice
When the story first broke in March of 2019, people hoped that the 33 parents involved in the college admissions scandal would be unable to skirt justice given how obvious their illegal actions were. The scandal is so typical and yet so wildly unbelievable at the same time.
Privileged parents using money to get their children ahead in life is as American as apple pie. However, something about this story feels different.
It is the biggest case involving college admissions that the U.S. Justice Department has ever prosecuted. The scam, orchestrated by Rick Singer, had gone on for years. It involved successfully deceiving some of the world’s most prestigious colleges and placed a magnifying glass on the notoriously secretive admissions processes of elite universities. The abuses of privilege were so organized, so blatant and just so clearly wrong.
And yet, Loughlin’ and Giannulli’s sentencing proves that the astoundingly unjust nature of the scandal is not enough to ensure that the parents involved will face the law’s harshest consequences. Yes, the couple will go to jail for a few months and has suffered professionally, with Loughlin getting fired from both the Hallmark Channel and Netflix’s “Fuller House” shortly after the case became public. The court of public opinion has also treated them quite ruthlessly.
Nonetheless, Loughlin and Giannulli’s race and socioeconomic status still protected their lives from being completely upended by their federal crime. Having recently sold their $18.75 million home and downsized to a $9.5 million one, they will surely have no issue paying their fines. Their jail time and community service hours can be completed within a year’s time. While the couple’s reputations are forever tarnished, the legal consequences they face amount to a mere blip in their life story.
Sentencing Disparities in the Criminal Justice System
Being wealthy and white acts as a suit of armor when it comes to the American criminal justice system. According to an ACLU report on racial disparities in sentencing, Black men receive federal sentences that are about 20% longer than what white men convicted of similar crimes receive.
For example, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s 2016 investigation into sentencing disparities revealed that a white teenager charged with armed robbery was able to get away with just probation, despite the county’s sentencing guidelines recommending jail time for this type of crime. Meanwhile, a Black teenager charged with the same crime in the same county was sentenced to four years in jail.
Additionally, wealth has a huge influence on how the American criminal justice system treats people. The influence is so big that, according to legal experts like Sam Brooke of the Southern Poverty Law Center, you are better off being rich and guilty than poor and innocent.
Loughlin and Giannulli, guilty of conspiracy and fraud charges in the biggest admissions scandal in the history of higher education, had the money to hire lawyers that could get them the most minimal sentences possible. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Americans accused of much smaller crimes, who may even be innocent, can end up in jail for years simply because they do not have the money to post bail.
Deadly Consequences: Kalief Browder’s Story
These differences in treatment according to wealth aren’t just unfair — they’re life-threatening. No story illustrates this sad reality better than that of Kalief Browder. At 16 years old, Browder was arrested over accusations that he stole a backpack. Because his family could not afford the $3,000 bail, Browder ended up spending three years on Rikers Island. He spent two of those years in solitary confinement. During his time in prison, he was never tried or convicted of a crime. A few years after his release, Browder died by suicide.
Ultimately, Browder spent years locked up for the “crime” of being poor in America. While he may not have even been guilty of any actual crime, Browder spent two whole years entirely alone in a jail cell as a consequence of his impoverished background. The trauma from solitary confinement eventually led to his death. Given their backgrounds, Loughlin and Giannulli would never have the slightest chance of facing this kind of horrific injustice, no matter how egregious their crimes or how obvious their guilt.
Blatant Abuses of Privilege Met with Minimal Consequences
The couple’s relatively lenient sentences are especially frustrating given that the judge, Nathaniel Gorton, clearly saw the scandal for the flagrant abuse of privilege that it was.
He used powerful language to condemn them, telling Loughlin, “Here you are an admired, successful, professional actor with a long-lasting marriage, two apparently healthy, resilient children, more money than you could possibly need, a beautiful home in sunny Southern California — a fairy tale life. Yet you stand before me a convicted felon. And for what? For the inexplicable desire to grasp even more.” He also characterized Giannulli’s role in the scandal as “a crime motivated by hubris.”
The judge’s words prove his strong disdain for the couple’s actions. And still, Loughlin and Giannulli will spend only months in prison for crimes that could have put them away for two whole decades. Few people serve the full 20 years for the charges the couple faced, but it is still hard to swallow that they will not even spend half a year in jail.
It is especially jarring that Loughlin and Giannulli’s sentencing occurred during a period in which the U.S. is grappling with an immense reckoning regarding racial and socioeconomic injustices. As the country confronts the disproportionate amounts of violence and discrimination in Black, brown and poor communities, a well-off Hollywood couple still gets convicted of a huge crime that was directly tied to their privilege and faces minimal legal consequences.
The Giannulli children, Isabella and Olivia Jade, had every advantage in the world when it came to a college admissions process that already favors privilege. They could have attended the best private schools growing up, participated in any extracurricular they wanted and afforded the best possible test prep and (legal) college admissions advising services that Southern California had to offer.
While not a crew athlete, Olivia Jade is a popular YouTuber with millions of subscribers; and because she began her channel in high school, she certainly could have highlighted this activity in her application.
A USC acceptance was very much in reach for Loughlin and Giannulli’s daughters from the day they were born. Just a little bit of hard work would have gotten them there on their own merit, which only adds insult to injury. Nonetheless, their parents still took the easy and expensive way out, unapologetically paying for their daughters’ admissions and only regretting their actions because they got caught.
While their crimes have not gone unpunished, Loughlin and Giannulli were still able to avoid spending years of their life in prison. Other Americans, some of whom may even have been innocent, have not been so lucky. The college admissions scandal was filled with raging, uninhibited and illegal abuses of privilege. If this wasn’t enough to stop the criminal justice system from favoring well-off individuals, it’s hard to believe that anything will.