College Admissions Scandal Is Proof U.S. Justice System ‘Targets Race’ and Pardons ‘Crimes of Wealth and Privilege’

As reports emerged that prosecutors planned to seek a jail sentence of four to 10 months for actress Felicity Huffman for her part in the college admissions scandal, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez slammed the case as proof that the U.S. justice system was more a “class enforcement system” than anything else.

“Our country has a ‘justice’ system that criminalizes poverty [and] disproportionately targets race, yet routinely pardons large-scale crimes of wealth and privilege,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in response to an NBC report on the college admissions scandal. 

“Moments like these tell us it’s less a justice system, and more a class enforcement system,” she said. 

Huffman was one of 33 parents accused of using their wealth and status to cheat standardized tests for their children and bribe college administrators to help guarantee their admission.

The Desperate Housewives star was among the 13 parents to plead guilty last week to charges of conspiracy to commit fraud. In an apology, Huffman said she was “ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community.” 

With CNN and NBC reporting that prosecutors planned to seek four to 10 months of jail time for Huffman, in addition to allowing the TV star to argue for a zero to six-month sentence, critics, including Ocasio-Cortez, said that the college admissions scandal highlighted the disparities within the U.S. justice system. 

“Let’s be clear. The college admissions scandal is just the TIP of the iceberg,” tweeted Abdul El-Sayed, who launched an unsuccessful bid in Michigan’s 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary. “There’s admissions, then there’s admissions for the wealthy. There’s criminal justice, then there’s criminal justice for the privileged. There shouldn’t be two systems.”

Rights organizations have long called attention to racial and class disparities within the U.S. criminal justice system that particularly affect black Americans. 

According to the NAACP, black Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white Americans, with black Americans constituting 2.3 million (34 percent) of the total 6.8 million prison population in 2014.

While black Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32 percent of the U.S. population, they comprised 56 percent of all incarcerated people in 2015, according to the NAACP. The nation’s oldest civil rights organization said on its website that if black and Hispanic people were incarcerated at the same rate as white people, the U.S. would see prison and jail populations decline by almost 40 percent.

In Michelle Alexander’s best-selling 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindless, the author further argued that mass incarceration exists as one of several “major racialized systems of control” in the U.S., effectively ensuring “the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.”

In her book, Alexander drew links between the U.S. penal system, slavery and Jim Crow, the state laws that once oversaw the segregation in the U.S.

The author wrote that mass incarceration had “metaphorically” become “the new Jim Crow,” that the disproportionate incarceration of black people in the U.S. was simply an extension of racist laws. 

Ocasio-Cortez’s point that the U.S. justice system served as a “class enforcement system” had also been made before. Last year, the United Nations special reporter on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, described the U.S. criminal justice system as a “system for keeping the poor in poverty while generating revenue.”

In his report, Alston described how fines and fees placed on poor people charged with low-level infractions, as well as harsh collection tactics, effectively trapped people in poverty.

He also took aim at the money bail system, which is used in nearly every U.S. state and requires people to pay high fees to secure their release from jail before trial, leaving those who cannot afford to pay to languish in jail, often resulting in a loss of jobs, inability to pay rent and further destitution. 

Human Rights Watch and the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School have also called on the U.S. government to do more to prevent the criminal justice system from “punishing poverty and further impoverishing the poor.” 

In a statement, Komala Ramachandra, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “Justice should not be blind to how it harms the poor, and federal and state governments should work with reform movements to fix these problems.”

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, listens during a House Financial Services Committee hearing on April 10, in Washington, D.C. Ocasio-Cortez said the college admissions scandal showed that the U.S. justice system was more like a “class enforcement system.” Alex Wroblewski/Getty

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