Deborah Pierce embezzled $375,000 from an institute she headed at Webster University, but the white-collar criminal only got a slap on the wrist and a homework assignment. U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey assigned her to write a journal and said he would show it to his gang-court participants because they think the only people who commit crimes are “poor, from the ’hood and black.”
What Pierce’s sentence really will show them is that justice is not color blind. It will show them that white privilege equals a get out of jail free card. Autrey says his gang court participants have “significant” criminal backgrounds and don’t think well-to-do, educated white people commit crimes, the Post-Dispatch’s Robert Patrick reported.
Pierce certainly proved that notion wrong. But her example also shows that well-off whites seldom suffer equal consequences. If you’re 16 and black, like Bobby Bostic was in 1995 when he used a gun to hold up a group delivering Christmas gifts, you can wind up with a 241-year prison sentence.
Gender plays a role, too. A 48-year-old male facilities manager was sentenced to more than two years in prison when he pleaded guilty to scamming Webster University out of $625,000 in 2007. Pierce’s attorney noted in court that 40 percent of female fraud offenders don’t go to prison, regardless of past crimes.
Pierce, 62, could have received a 20-year sentence and been fined up to $250,000. She pleaded guilty to a federal felony charge of transporting stolen property across state lines. Her husband, Philip Pierce, was the director of government and business relations for the Confucius Institute. He left the job in 2016 when the university let his wife go.
In sentencing Deborah Pierce, Autrey said there was no rational basis for a woman like her, with a good background and ample income, to have committed the crime. It looked like she was “having fun and needed some extra cash,” he added.
With those strongly expressed feelings, why didn’t Autrey give Pierce the two years recommended under sentencing guidelines? Or even the 12 months her own defense lawyer suggested? Why not a sentence that sent a message to young gang-court participants that they aren’t the only people who are punished for committing crimes?
Racial disparity in sentencing is troublesome, and much too common. In the separate justice system in the St. Louis region, black people go to jail for not paying traffic fines or failing to appear in court for nuisance violations. No mere homework assignment for them.
Will Pierce learn anything from her sentence? She’s on probation and will have to repay the university, but that money won’t repair the school’s damaged reputation, or heal the community’s ruptured trust and confidence.