College Admissions Cases and Hard Bargaining

Prosecutors regularly threaten to add charges if defendants do not accept plea deals. This threat can be serious and can result in substantially more prison time. It seems the rich and privileged defendants in the College Admissions Scandal cases are experiencing this first hand.

On Monday, a number of defendants, including Felicity Huffman, agreed to accept plea deals. Her deal is here:

Prosecutors reportedly threatened to add charges to defendants who did not plead out on Monday. On Tuesday prosecutors made good on that threat and added money laundering charges against 16 of the parents, including actress Lori Laughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannuli. This ratchets up the possible prison time considerably (from charges that already carried a possible maximum of 20 years).

This has all happened in the first few weeks after the arraignments on these cases. There are structural incentives built into the federal sentencing guidelines to encourage defendants to plead out early (to take responsibility). The earlier the better. Once additional charges are filed it is hard to get back to whatever the original offer might have been.

The problem, from a defendant’s perspective, is that they may still be in shock and denial and not accepting the seriousness of their situation. They may not understand that there is no avoiding prison time under the circumstances, particularly if they are a first-time offender. This is, reportedly, what is happening with Lori Laughlin and her husband. The original plea deal would have involved two years in prison—and they are having a hard time accepting any prison time. See

Putting aside the serious question of whether prison is appropriate in this—and countless other—cases, there is an equally serious question of why we routinely pressure defendants to make early decisions in their criminal cases and then penalize them when they fail to? Why not give defendants more time to come to terms with what is happening and what their options are?

The reality is that this kind of pressure is routine. The difference is most defendants are unknown, poor, and don’t have the advantages of the defendants in this high profile scandal. But, the question is the same, why do we accept this kind of hard bargaining as a routine part of plea bargaining?

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