When news broke on Tuesday about the U.S. college admissions bribing scandal that had ensnared at least 50 people in six states including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, people were shocked to hear about the lengths the wealthy would go to ensure their children's acceptance to elite universities, and surprised to see the worlds of criminal justice and higher education collide.
Those implicated in the scandal are accused of paying stunning amounts of money to have their kids' exam scores doctored and participation in extra-curricular activities faked. Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli are alleged to have paid as much as $500,000 USD to USC's college crew coach to have their daughters admitted as crew-team recruits (even though they never rowed crew). Huffman reportedly paid $15,000 USD to have her daughter's SAT scores inflated.
The notion that the rich have an advantage in the college admissions process is nothing new. The wealthy have long been able to make donations to universities in exchange for their children's admission, and "legacy" students — whose parents preceded them in attendance at a prestigious school — are often granted priority. William Singer, the man accused of heading up the current bribery scam, began his career operating a seemingly legitimate college counselling and preparation company that offered services like tutoring and test prep that would give those with the ability to afford it a leg up in the increasingly competitive world of academic admissions, before venturing into six-figure-bribery.
But the idea that the elite would actually commit serious crimes in addition to spending vast sums of money has added a new wrinkle to the old story of wealth inequality. There are few other aspects of American society that so drastically illuminate the vast difference between the way that those with financial means and those without live their lives than the world of higher education. Arguably the other sector where the divide is as clear is the world of criminal justice, and in this story, those two worlds have come together in surprising ways.
This was most visible when Felicity Huffman was taken into custody by the FBI on Tuesday. She appeared in court where she posted a $250,000 USD signature bond and released. A signature bond is a form of unsecured cash bail in which the defendant makes the promise to pay the money if they fail to show up for scheduled hearings. It is, essentially, an IOU.
Singer has pleaded guilty to charges including racketeering and is cooperating with federal authorities. He was released on a $500,000 USD property bond secured by real estate belonging to his brother. Lori Loughlin's $1 million USD bond was also secured against her home and assets. Again – no actual cash was turned over. This is in contrast to unsecured bail, which must be paid before an accused person is released and is the more likely type of bail to be set in criminal prosecutions.
Refinery29 spoke with Phil Telfeyan, the executive director of Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit dedicated to criminal justice reform with a focus on eliminating wealth-based inequality. He sees the issue of cash bail as one of the most extreme examples of wealth discrimination in our criminal justice system, and explained how it favours those with means.
Being giving the opportunity to "promise to pay," as Huffman and Singer were able to do, is a luxury. Ironically, those who are often granted this luxury are the wealthy and those who own property. Telfeyan explained that those who don't have real estate to put up as collateral or the ability to pay in one lump sum have to use the services of private bail companies. These companies typically charge 10% of the amount of borrowed — and that money is non-refundable, even if the person is ultimately found innocent of any crime. Any money put up for bail is returned at the end of a trial whether the person is found guilty or innocent, so if you can afford to put up the whole amount at once (or are able to make a "promise to pay"), bail costs you nothing.
Telfeyan drew the comparison between the worlds of criminal justice and higher education, saying, "Education and criminal justice are both areas where race and class play a role, but they shouldn't. You should not have greater access to education if you're wealthy, in the same way you shouldn't have greater access to freedom. These beliefs are inherent in our sense of equality under the law."
He pointed to a recent legal victory in San Francisco in which a federal judge struck down the use of cash bail for those who have been arrested on suspicion of crimes but not yet arraigned as an example of positive change for reform. For Telfeyan, neither someone with means, like those who bought their kids' way into prestigious colleges, nor a disenfranchised person suspected of a low-level offence like shoplifting, should have to buy their way out of prison. "The justice system should not discriminate based on wealth," he said. "Whether you are rich or poor should have no impact on your freedom."