Thirteen wealthy defendants, including two well-known actresses will plead guilty to using bribery and other forms of fraud as part of the “college admissions scandal” that has been sensationally covered during the past few weeks. Federal prosecutors in Boston have recommended 12-15 months of prison time in addition to fines and supervised release following incarceration.

While there seems little question that the actions of the defendants were at best utterly unfair and unabashedly elitist, the sentencing rationale for a year or more in prison seems equally ill-founded. The almost palpable pleasure in taking down and punishing the admittedly rich, famous, and surely spoiled may be symptomatic of a loss of perspective in which punitive intensity and thin prosecutorial discretion overwhelm tempered responses to white-collar offenses.

The cost to the defendants in terms of family, career, and financial damage plus the social burden of the cost of incarceration, and questionable deterrence all should make us wonder about the quality of justice in both the legal and social discourse here.

Moreover, it is tempting to ask why few have raised the issue of decades of “legacy admissions” and all the associated abuses of power and wealth that have apparently been tolerated without much discussion or formal objection.

Finally, we should ask what happened to the ideals of community-based corrections which require social service in high-need areas by offenders with valuable skills and talents. Who really wins when we reflexively respond to individual bad behavior with short-sighted and flawed institutional and social judgment.

Peter Pressman

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