Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Celebrity Justice?

by Robin Sax

Celebrity justice: is it an oxymoron?  Do celebrities get justice?  Do they get treated better?  Do they get treated worse?  Most people believe that celebrities get preferential treatment with shortened sentences, easy plea deals and the like.  The New York Daily News, supporting this view, has provided its findings as proof that celebs do the crime -- they just don’t do the time.  

The site offers various examples of recent celeb cases where the jail sentence was cut short: Paris Hilton, in 2007, was sentenced to 45 days in jail, but released after four days; Lindsay Lohan, in 2007, was sentenced to four days in jail but released after 84 minutes; Nicole Richie, in 2007 was sentenced to four days in jail but released after 82 minutes; Michelle Rodriguez, in 2008, was sentenced to 180 days in jail but released after 17 -- you get the idea. 

But is this really a factor of stardom, or is everyone getting a break these days?  Plenty of non-celebs  get their jail time curtailed because of jail overcrowding and other factors. It's important to remember celebs aren't the only people do less time then sentenced. However, it's hard for the general public to digest this, because everyday-Joe cases aren't covered 24/7. 
Paris Hilton Mug Shot

Preferential treatment is sometimes defined or viewed as reverse discrimination. It occurs when a person receives a benefit because he/she is of a certain societal or economic status, or has another categorization making them "special", such as a Hollywood or media star. Because preferential treatment rarely rises to the level of discrimination, it can be very difficult to prove that a person is actually receiving better treatment based on his/her celebrity status.

There exists a popular notion that celebrities who are accused of crimes are more likely to be acquitted or receive lighter sentences than non-celebrities.  According to empirical research from studies by the The Law and Society Association, the status and authority of a defendant can indeed influence jurors’ decision-making processes. This social power sometimes translates into favorable treatment in the courtroom. But some celebrities'  fame  may work against them. In other words, the preferential treatment celebrities were found to receive in a courtroom or jail setting might not translate exactly to lighter legal treatment -- as is often thought.

What celebrities get is different treatment. And really, is that entirely wrong? I think everyone would readily agree that while there should be uniformity and consistency in court, the unique situation of any person's case could require a change in protocol or policy.  As a former prosecutor, I saw this all the time. While the sentences I would seek for defendants were uniform and objective, I always balanced the defendant's history and situation -- which may have lead him or her to the life of crime; you also must include and weigh occupational and educational backgrounds. The fact is that while everyone likes black-letter law and rock solid rules, that's not always possible to execute. In some cases it's just plain impractical and, frankly, unjust.

Lindsay Lohan Mug Shot
The perception that stars get special treatment persists and is being fed by the recent incarceration of LiLo. We are hearing all about Lohan getting her own cell, extra time in the infirmary, use of TV and Internet, specialty foods, newer/nicer clothes, extra guards, private phone use, extended visiting hours, isolation from the other prisoners, and more. But what else can we do with a celebrity likely to be target for other inmates, the public, and the media? Part of the sheriff's department's responsibility is protecting inmates. 

The celebrity courthouse circus is sometimes cited as a drain on the criminal justice system because of the extra costs of special treatment. But by definition, a celebrity is someone who is different from and fascinating to the general public. Their fame means they're subject to more intense scrutiny and require different protections. They usually give up their private lives in exchange for our adoration (and the need more security measures). 

We have political stars, Hollywood stars, music stars, sports stars, even news-media stars, and now reality-TV stars who've all had run-ins with the law. The recent media interest in Lindsay Lohan and in the Michael Jackson /Conrad Murray case, though, have surpassed the interest in other celebrity legal-ins of recent memory (Martha Stewart, Robert Downey Jr., and Hugh Grant come to mind). Of course, most will say -- and I agree -- the OJ Simpson trial solidified our fascination with celebrity justice.

Mel Gibson Mug Shot
So do celebrities receive special treatment in court? Does the expression "duh" mean anything to you? But, again, special is not necessarily preferential. When a celebrity is due to appear in court, authorities have to use extra safety precautions to protect the celebrity, courthouse employees, and the general public. They may need to request additional sheriff deputies;  provide extra security for the public; assign extra clerks for taking the minutes (because of the extra scrutiny); and use more District Attorney resources and staff time overall.  

Precautions use different resources when a celeb goes to jail rather than just a courthouse appearance. For example, a motorcade took Lindsay Lohan to jail -- probably necessary, but definitely costly.

There are also cases in other courtrooms, on other judges's calendars, that can't be moved just because a high-profile person is facing one judge, whether for a brief hearing, a full trial, or sentencing, on a particular day. The constitutional rights of all defendants mean the court has to keep certain dates, so there is no way to actually shut down the courthouse completely. 

However, to the extent that a judge has discretion over that particular day's case load, he/she may postpone everything possible. Criminal courts are open to the public (whereas family courts, as in Mel Gibson's family court case, are closed to the public), so celebrity criminal cases mean it will take more time for the public and news media to file in and out of the courthouse. Approximately 20 percent of all judges's court hearings will likely be rescheduled on the day of a celebrity appearance to allow for the extra time needed.

In a way, a celebrity court hearing could be looked upon as a burden on the justice system (in both financial and logistical terms); however, nothing is going to change that fact so long as there is still such strong public interest in celebrity trials. It's important to remember that not all celebrity cases involve Hollywood stars. In some cases, celebrity is actually notoriety. For example, in the cases of Joran van der Sloot and Philip Garrido, they not celebrities per se, but their crimes were so horrific and intriguing that public interest has elevated the status of the case to that of a celebrity trial. 

Not so widely discussed is the public benefit of celebrity justice. For example, the public will become more educated about the justice system, and the trials can be used as deterrents for bad behaviors ... as in, don't get a DUI, for starters, and then, duh, don't violate the terms of your probation -- or you will go to jail (Lindsay!).

When celebrities break the law, they may sometimes be given extra resources or attention from the criminal justice system because of their star status -- but it is mostly because the public interest necessitates the special treatment. It is very much a Catch 22: you can't have stars without setting them apart from the rest of society, but you can't have true equality in the justice system if some individuals are set apart. We do the best we can and hope that in the end, the punishment will fit the crime, regardless of who commits it (fingers crossed)!


Anonymous said...

Robin makes an excellent point here about this important issue. How can we expect celebrities to be treated the same as ordinary folks? because they are not ordinary, they are stars and they need special consideration but that doesnt mean special justice, like she said. Thanks for the great piece Robin!

Leah said...

Thank you for your post Robin. I am very familiar with this issue. In '06 the Governor of Alabama appointed Richard Allen as the new Prison Commissioner and within 6 months of his appointment he was ordered to "fix" the overcrowding prison population within 6 months or he would be joke. I saw many violent criminals move from lifers to eligible for release. I won't go into the detail of how they attempted to solve the problem but wanted to say that the celebs and their BS about being released early shouldn't even be on the news when you compare it to the real jail/prison release. Most individuals don't know that once a case is adjuicated, the judge doesn't have any jurisdiction/input about the release of the prisoner they incarcerated. That is up to to the Department of Corrections and the prison Warden. Of course they are supposed to have guidelines to follow but we know that they aren't bound by anything legal or ethical whenever they make those decisions. Most of the time, in Alabama at least, it doesn't even have to go before the Parole Board. Many things in the penal system need to be changed.