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Felicity Huffman sentenced to 14 days in prison for college cheating scandal

Actor Felicity Huffman has been sentenced to 14 days in prison for her part in America’s largest college admissions cheating case, in which wealthy parents have been accused in a widespread conspiracy to cheat and game the US university entrance system.

In addition to the prison time, she was sentenced to 250 hours of community service, ordered to pay a $30,000 fine, and will endure one year of probation. Her lawyers have argued that she should serve those 14 days in a California, low-risk federal prison.

"I think this is the right sentence here," said federal judge Indira Talwani.

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Speaking through tears during her sentencing hearing, Huffman express regret for her actions, even as the judge told her that her explanation that she had paid to cheat because she was a worried mother was not adequate, and that many parents endure stresses.

"I am deeply sorry to the students, parents, colleges, and universities who've been impacted by my actions. I am sorry to my daughter Sophia, and Georgia, and I am sorry to my husband," Huffman, who was accompanied to the court by her actor husband William H Macy, said. "I have betrayed them."

She continued, saying that telling her daughter about the cheating was the hardest part of the ordeal: "I can only say, I am so sorry Sophia. I was frightened, I was stupid, and I was so wrong. I am deeply ashamed of what I've done. I take full responsibility for my actions. I will deserve whatever punishment you give me."

Before that, prosecutors had argued forcefully for prison time, saying that the measure is necessary in this case in order to ensure that justice is served — and that Huffman does not get off with an easy sentence because of her considerably high position in society.

"Prison is the great leveller. Prison is necessary here," a federal prosecutor, seeking one month in prison for Huffman, said. "She did this once, but she planned to do this again, signalling an inherent disregard for the laws that govern our society."

Huffman, 56, was among 50 people who the US Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts announced they were charging in the cheating scandal in March.

Those charges were brought against Huffman and fellow actor Lori Loughlin, as well as coaches, admissions counsellors, other parents, Ms Loughlin’s husband, and fashion designer J Mossimo Giannulli, all of whom were indicted related to accusations of falsifying SAT scores, and lying about athletic skills to secure university placement even though the students did not play those sports.

Before her sentencing, Huffman had asked for leniency from the Boston court, and said that she had acted out of a sense of devotion as a mother — and fear at the prospect of failing in her maternal duties. “I find Motherhood bewildering,” she wrote in a 1,400-word letter to Ms Talwani. “From the moment my children were born, I was worried that they got me as a Mother. I so desperately wanted to do it right, and was so deathly afraid of doing it wrong.”

Huffman is a mother of two, and had been accused by prosecutors of agreeing to pay William “Rick” Singer, a now-convicted admissions consultant who orchestrated the cheating scheme, $15,000 to improve one of her daughter’s SAT scores by cheating.

During that period of time, prosecutors have noted, Huffman was giving parenting advice online.

Prosecutors, who had asked that Huffman spend a month in prison for her time, also said that her daughter was not involved in the crime.

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Huffman pleaded guilty last May to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and honest services mail fraud. Her lawyers had said that one year of probation alongside 250 hours of community service and a $20,000 fine was an adequate punishment.

She is the first of nearly three dozen wealthy parents to be sentenced. The results have been watched closely to see if they signal that the other parents might receive harsh or lenient sentences, and some questions have been raised as to whether the white, rich defendants will be treated differently than if they were nonwhite and poor.

The maximum sentence for Huffman’s crime, a felony, was 20 years in prison.

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