Felicity Huffman, the actress who paid $15,000 to a consultant to inflate her daughter’s SAT scores, was sentenced to two weeks in prison Friday, after a federal judge said Huffman cheated to gain an advantage in a college admissions process already tilted in favor of the rich and privileged.
Huffman was the first parent sentenced in the nationwide college admissions bribery scandal, which US District Judge Indira Talwani said had renewed attention on the admissions process at top-tier schools that was “already so distorted by money and privilege in the first place.”
“You took the step of obtaining one more advantage to put your child ahead of theirs,” Talwani told Huffman, who sat between her lawyers in a packed courtroom in US District Court in Boston. She was ordered to report to an undetermined federal prison on Oct. 25.
Huffman was among 51 people, including celebrities, coaches, and financiers, who allegedly paid bribes ranging from $15,000 to $1.2 million to college counselor William “Rick” Singer to help get their children into some of the nation’s top colleges.
Her prison sentence signaled that 14 other parents who have pleaded guilty in the scandal will likely be sent to prison as well. Twenty-eight other defendants, including actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
Huffman, 56, pleaded guilty to fraud two months after the scandal broke in March. She had expressed remorse about her actions and under federal sentencing guidelines faced a maximum of six months behind bars.
Talwani’s decision capped an emotional courtroom scene in which Huffman broke down in tears as she apologized to her daughters and her husband, actor William H. Macy, who sat in the courtroom along with a dozen other friends and relatives of Huffman’s.
“I take full responsibility for my actions,” Huffman said, her voice shaking. “I will deserve whatever punishment you give me.”
Prosecutors asked that Huffman serve a month in prison while the defense asked that she avoid jail time and be sentenced to probation. Talwani decided that Huffman deserved “some incarceration.”
“Trying to be a good mother doesn’t excuse this,” Talwani said with a deep sigh. “A person in the position of wealth and the position you are in is in a much easier position in this meritocracy.”
Talwani said the sentence, which included 250 hours of community service and a $30,000 fine, would allow Huffman to move forward. Unless sentenced to some time in prison, Huffman would forever face questions asking “why you got away with this,” Talwani said.
“I do think this is the right sentence here,” the judge said. “You can rebuild your life after this.”
Huffman said she is haunted by the memory of driving her daughter, Sophia, to the West Los Angeles test center in December 2017, knowing that she had secretly paid Singer to have a proctor bump up her daughter’s SAT score afterward.
At the time, Huffman said, she was thinking “turn around,” but “to my eternal shame I didn’t.”
Huffman described how her daughter felt betrayed after her mother was arrested.
“ ‘I don’t know who you are anymore,’ ” Huffman recalled her daughter saying.
“I could only say, ‘I am so sorry, Sophia. I was frightened. I was stupid, and I was so wrong,’ ” Huffman said.
Huffman told the judge she was ashamed of what she had done.
“I now realize with my mothering, love and truth must go hand in hand,” she said. “I see that my love coming at the expense of truth is not real love.”
In a letter sent to Talwani last week, Huffman said her fear that her daughter, who has learning disabilities, would not get into college threw off her “moral compass” and compelled her to cheat.
In court Friday, Assistant US Attorney Eric Rosen scoffed at that explanation as he argued for prison time.
“With all due respect to the defendant, welcome to parenthood,” said Rosen, adding that it is terrifying, exhausting, and stressful.
“What parenthood does not do, it does not make you a felon,” he said. “It does not make you cheat.”
He pointed to the case of a poor single woman in Ohio who was sentenced to 10 days in jail for falsifying her address so that her child could be transferred to a better school district.
“There is no reason that a wealthy . . . mother should avoid the same fate,” Rosen said. “In prison there is no paparazzi . . . in prison everyone wears the same clothes. Prison is the great leveler. Prison is necessary here.”
Huffman’s lawyer, Martin Murphy, said Rosen repeatedly referred to Huffman’s wealth in seeking prison time.
“I would never suggest that Ms. Huffman should be treated differently than other defendants because she is wealthy,” Murphy said. “But by the same token, it should not be the case that Ms. Huffman should be treated more harshly.”
Talwani said Huffman was among the least culpable of the parents charged in the admissions scandal. Unlike other parents, she did not enlist her daughter’s participation in the scheme and did not pay Singer to inflate the scores for her younger daughter.
Huffman and her husband left the courthouse together, declining to speak with a throng of reporters.
She later said, through a statement, that she accepted her punishment without reservation and looked forward to performing her community service.
“I can promise you that in the months and years to come that I will try and live a more honest life, serve as a better role model for my daughters and family, and continue to contribute my time and energies wherever I am needed,” Huffman said. “My hope now is that my family, my friends and my community will forgive me for my actions.”
Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph. Maria Cramer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer.