Rich Defendant, Poor Defendant

Robert H. Richards IV, an heir to the du Pont fortune, was convicted of sexually abusing his own child. Justifying her decision to put Richards on probation, a judge noted that the wealthy defendant would not “fare well in prison.” A few months earlier, an affluent Texas teenager convicted of killing four people while driving drunk was also sentenced to probation in lieu of prison. His lawyer successfully used the “affluenza” defense, arguing that his client was not fully accountable for his actions because of his privileged upbringing. While the slaps on the wrist these wealthy defendants received led to public outrage, most Americans are unmoved by the fact that poor defendants disproportionately bear the weight of criminal penalties.

In their 1998 book, The Common Place of Law, scholars Patricia Ewick and Susan S. Silbey offer a framework for understanding this apparent contradiction. Most people actually hold complex and seemingly contradictory views about the law and the legal system, they argue. People often believe that the legal system provides fair treatment under the law most of the time, while also acknowledging that some criminal defendants are at times treated differently because of their race and class. Our ability to hold multiple views of the legal system explains why we can become outraged over specific class-based sentencing decisions, while remaining complacent about routine discrimination against poor and minority defendants.