The one good thing that’s come out of our fractured political system as of late is the First Step Act. The bipartisan legislation was signed into law by President Trump in December 2018 and is considered the first major step toward ending mass incarceration in the United States. But while the country still has to go much further in changing criminal justice laws, the biggest change needs to be in the American mindset. Prison has become the default response to wrongdoing — more serious and less so. Case in point: Lori Loughlin.

Let’s presume that Loughlin is, in fact, guilty of the charges she is facing: attempting to bribe her daughters’ way into the University of Southern California. If that’s the case, the actress did the wrong thing. Her actions may have prevented two deserving young adults from getting admitted to USC. But Loughlin isn’t a danger to society. Americans don’t sleep with one eye open because she is on the streets. And let’s be clear: America will not right the massive inequalities in the US criminal justice system by incarcerating Loughlin.


America needs to embrace a new narrative. Prisons must be reserved for the worst in society and there needs to be a better, wiser, rehabilitative alternative for those who break the law but don’t fit into that category. Believe it or not, this was the thinking at one time.

Early in the 20th century, mainstream thinking about the purpose of prison focused on rehabilitation. In the 1970s, as crime started to increase in cities, that thinking changed dramatically. American fear and anger brought more punitive punishment. Phrases like “tough on crime” and “don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time” became the new mantras.

Today, there are 2.2 million people in our nation’s prisons and jails — a 500 percent increase over the last 40 years. Changes in law and policy — such as tougher drug sentences and three-strikes laws — explain most of the increase. And these measures have had devastating consequences.


Something has to give — and it starts by acknowledging that the current system offers no return on investment for anyone. It weakens communities, destroys families, places a financial burden on US taxpayers, perpetuates a generational cycle of poverty and incarceration, and hurts businesses. We won’t see meaningful change until average Americans change their thinking and start demanding solutions with empathy, instead of chanting “lock her up” every time Loughlin’s face pops up on social media. Yes, wealthy people have always had a better chance of getting off when they break the law. This is true. But you don’t solve for that by locking up wealthy people who don’t deserve to be in prison.

There are plenty of alternatives that offer benefits to society and to offenders alike: fines (for those who can afford them); community service and leadership programs; mentoring; personalized drug-use support; and mental health services.

What would the appropriate punishment be for Loughlin, in particular, if she is found guilty? For starters, she has the financial means to fund an annual scholarship to USC for disadvantaged youths. This is a good, passive alternative to prison. However, active alternatives tend to bring about greater change and have a greater effect on the thinking of the convicted. That’s where community leadership comes in. Sentence Loughlin to spend time in real conversations with people from unempowered communities, to better understand their experiences, their challenges, and the support they need. Perhaps this will inspire her to acknowledge her own privilege and engage deeply, meaningfully, and authentically in bringing about solutions that foster economic empowerment and increase upward mobility.


Loughlin is an accomplished woman, wife, and mother. People can learn from her, and in the process, Loughlin will learn more about herself and be able to impart that wisdom to her daughters. “If the eyes don’t see,” the saying goes, "the heart can’t change.”

Kellie Walenciak is head of corporate communications for Televerde, a sales and marketing company based in Phoenix. Seven of Televerde’s 10 engagement centers are staffed by incarcerated women, representing 70 percent of the company’s global workforce. Walenciak can be reached at Kellie.walenciak@televerde.com. Follow her on Twitter @KellieAnn_W.