They’re not the same thing. You knew that, I think. But the stories of Felicity Huffman and Kelley Williams-Bolar illustrate that especially dramatically.
Both are working women. Both have become national-media sensations. Both are accused of committing crimes to obtain a better education for their children.
But Williams-Bolar and Huffman are not so much analogues as funhouse-mirror versions of each other, their stories of justice and injustice similar and yet distorted and converse. Huffman, who starred on Desperate Housewives, has admitted to paying $15,000 for a proctor to correct her daughter’s standardized-test scores. She was swept up in the “Varsity Blues” investigation into corruption, bribery, and fraud in elite-college admissions, and today she received a two-week sentence. A decade ago, Williams-Bolar was a single, black mother living in public housing. In 2011, the state of Ohio convicted and imprisoned her for falsifying her address to get her kids into better public schools. At Huffman’s sentencing hearing, a federal prosecutor cited Williams-Bolar’s case, calling prison the “great leveler.”
The American justice system has an enormous capacity to forgive the rich and powerful their misdeeds, but must make an example of working class and poor to maintain a respect for law and order. We all know this, though some of deny it endlessly. It’s uncomfortable. And that’s before you even take race into account.
We don’t like to be honest about what our justice system actually is: a social control mechanism that keeps the powerless in their place. Yes, it demands that some rich and powerful people be taken down to preserve faith in the process. That’s the fig leaf that lets us ignore it.
There’s an element of this is just about every society on earth, but we have embraced it and expanded it here. We’ve had a private prison business grow up around it – you might as well make some bank off of it! And so now we’ve got a powerful lobby for more jail time for more people.
Surprise – we imprison more of our people than anywhere else on earth. Our incarceration rate is six times that of China, ten times that of Germany, and twenty times that of India.
It’s a great system, if you’re on the right side of it.