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New Charges in College Admission Scandal a 'Trial Penalty'?

Lori Loughlin exits the John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse after appearing in Federal Court to answer charges stemming from college admissions scandal on April 3, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)
By Andrew Leonatti on October 30, 2019

The college admissions scandal, in which parents paid bribes to inflate entrance exam scores and gain phony athletics scholarships for their children, gave most Americans the opportunity to turn their collective nose up at some well-to-do folks getting caught trying to game the system even further in their favor.

And then we got the chance to get mad again when actress Felicity Huffman received a two-week sentence for her role in the affair. Two weeks? That's just a slap on the wrist! Rich people have it so easy in this country!

DOJ Comes Down Hard

Well, the U.S. Department of Justice just gave us another chance to get the pitchforks out. Last week, the DOJ announced new charges against the 18 people involved in the scandal who have yet to take a plea deal. Those charged include the actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, the fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, who have steadfastly maintained their innocence.

Wait, more charges for maintaining your innocence? Is that fair?

After four more parents pleaded guilty in a Boston federal court last week, the DOJ announced the new charges against the remaining 18. That includes 11 parents charged with conspiracy to commit bribery and seven others charged with conspiracy to commit fraud charges.

In a statement, the DOJ highlights the serious consequences for a conviction on these new charges. All of the 18 could be facing years in federal prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

The Real Goal of the Charges

As USA Today noted in its coverage, the new indictment does not allege any newly uncovered misdeeds on the part of the parents, coaches, and ringleaders.

Instead, this is simply the DOJ trying to get these folks to play ball on their terms. This is a strategy that the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers refers to as the "trial penalty."

In a 2018 report, the association found that more than 97% of federal criminal cases end in a plea deal. "There is ample evidence that federal criminal defendants are being coerced to plead guilty because the penalty for exercising their constitutional rights is simply too high to risk," the report states.

"So you won't take a plea deal? You really want to go to trial? OK, we'll tack on these charges too," is essentially what the Feds are saying to these parents and anyone facing federal criminal charges.

The Need for High Quality Representation

What would you do in that situation? Would you plead guilty and serve a few weeks in prison like Felicity Huffman, or would you fight like Lori Loughlin, knowing that if you lose, you could go away for years?

Federal prosecutors rely on that fear to crowd out rational thinking when bringing charges forward. This reinforces the need to have the right criminal defense representation if you or anyone you know is facing federal criminal charges. A lawyer who understands the strategies that federal prosecutors use and how to minimize the damage that they can cause can make all the difference.

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