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Archive for Sunday, August 26, 2007

Are blink-and-you-miss-them sentences celebrity justice?

August 26, 2007

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— In a city famous for showing that life's little problems can be resolved in a 30-minute sitcom, celebrity justice is sometimes just as swift.

Blink-and-you-miss-them sentences this week for Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie have resurrected the question of whether fame provides a soft landing for fallen stars.

On the same day, Lohan got a one-day jail sentence for drunken driving and being under the influence of cocaine, and Richie served the better part of a four-day jail sentence for driving under the influence of drugs in 82 minutes. She never saw the inside of a jail cell.

Were those slim punishments the benefit of fame? The answer is yes and no. Their sentences were consistent with others that occur outside the spotlight, according to legal experts. But high-priced lawyers helped them evade any stronger punishment.

On the flip side, the cost was high in negative headlines, legal bills and career consequences.

An actress like Lohan, who had a thriving screen career before she was arrested, may have trouble being insured for future projects. She is also spending time in yet another rehab facility and has admitted she has an addiction problem.

But the impact on others is what worries those involved in the legal system and the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse.

"For the young kids, it sets a bad example," said Beverly Hills addiction specialist Marty Brenner. "It says if I have enough money and a great lawyer, I can get away with anything."

As for why the young stars get in so much trouble, Brenner said, "I work with a lot of rich people. Their self-esteem is low. They have a lot of anger. They use drugs, alcohol and sex, and they are all crying out for help. But everyone is trying to make money off of them, the agents, the parents.

"I think some of these young starlets also do this to create excitement. They love the limelight. They crave attention, and negative attention is as good as positive attention."

He suggested that all such offenders be sentenced to a 90-day rehabilitation program because anything shorter doesn't work.

Those within the legal system say Lohan and Richie were treated no differently from other drug and alcohol cases that make their way through the courts.

In Los Angeles County, jail overcrowding requires that Sheriff Lee Baca use the facilities he has for more serious offenders.

Baca wants inmates to serve their full sentences, Undersheriff Larry Waldie said Friday, but "he does not want to go against what the judges want."

"He had no choice in this matter," Waldie said, adding that in addition to Richie, more than 50 women serving time on similar charges were released Thursday.

"The answer is there are too many bad girls and not enough cells," said Loyola University Law School professor Laurie Levenson. "The scariest thing is that the secret is out that there is no deterrence. ... Everyone in the system has known what's going on, that people don't serve much time for DUI. It's just a big surprise for the public."

She predicted others arrested for DUI are going to tell their lawyers: "I want the Lohan sentence."

Prosecutors may respond by overcharging crimes to enable judges to give longer sentences, Levenson said.

She noted that Lohan could have been charged with a felony but that her plea bargain involved only misdemeanors. Richie was a second offender charged with driving under the influence of drugs after motorists reported her driving the wrong way on a freeway. She was arrested after being found stopped in a car pool lane, her vehicle facing the right way.

Both Lohan and Richie fared far better than Paris Hilton, who served some three weeks in jail for a probation violation after pleading no contest to alcohol-related reckless driving.

"Paris Hilton got hit hard by a judge who knew he could use her as an example," Levenson said.

Attorney Harland Braun, who has represented celebrities on drug- and alcohol-related cases, said the public doesn't consider how much the stars have to lose.

If they are deemed uninsurable, they will lose acting roles. "If the public gets tired of them, it could really hurt their careers," he said.

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