Two things instantly jumped off the TV screen when Paris Hilton demanded a pardon from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. One was that she had the gall to even ask for a pardon. The other was that Schwarzenegger didn't flatly say no to her, issue a perfunctory denial, or keep silent. That's what usually happens when someone convicted of a crime asks for a pardon. His non-committal response again tells much about celebrity double standards.
Hilton sees nothing wrong in asking for a pardon even before she has served a day in jail, and why not. Jails in America aren't meant for a glamour girl, a jet set heiress that routinely titillates the gossip pages. Not surprisingly much of the media, and at times, even Hilton, has treated her bout with the law as a sideshow diversion that gives the public yet another voyeuristic glimpse into the screwed up lives of some of Hollywood's glitterati.
Hilton is yet another in the endless textbook examples of the well-encoded grossly different legal standard for the rich and famous lawbreakers. In her inebriated state she could have mowed over one or more innocent pedestrians or wreaked havoc with other vehicles. To top it off she thumbed her nose at the court, and not once but twice broke her probation by driving while banned from taking the wheel. This is hardly an example of no harm, no foul light frivolity. America's prisons and jails are filled with men and women that are serving stretches for DUI and probation violation convictions, some long stretches.
The same double standard that Hilton benefits from applies to other celebrity-accused lawbreakers. Their offenses were hardly schoolyard pranks. Winona Ryder was charged with grand theft shoplifting. Roman Polanski was charged with having sex with a minor. Zsa Zsa Gabor was charged with assaulting a police officer. Sean Combs was charged with bribery and illegal weapons possession. Robert Downey, Jr. was charged with countless numbers of drug possession offenses.
These charges have landed countless others in the slammer for long prison terms. An increasing number of those incarcerated are women, especially poor women. They make up the fastest growing number of America's prison and jail population. Many of these women are non-violent offenders charged with drug and or alcohol abuse offenses. They couldn't and indeed wouldn't dare dream of asking an action hero movie idol turned governor for a pardon. They wouldn't or couldn't implore as Hilton did in bold type on her MySpace homepage thousands to sign an online petition drawn up by one of her pal groupies demanding that Schwarzenegger give her a pardon.
There's nothing wrong with Hilton's pals pleading for empathy for her and urging the courts and Schwarzenegger to spare her jail time. There is also nothing wrong with the courts taking her mess of a life into consideration in determining the appropriate punishment for her if, and this is the impossible if, in a celebrity and money ridden criminal justice system thousands of others got the same compassion and help as Hilton.
It's not just the ability of Hilton, Ryder, Downey, Combs, and the other notorious celebrity bad boy, O.J. Simpson, to cast their spell over a fawning public that gives them a colossal edge over the average working stiff when they are hauled into court. It's also their deep pockets. They can afford to hire the top legal guns, crack private investigators, and publicists. This more than levels the legal playing field for them and enables them to go toe-to-toe with prosecutors. Prosecutors know that every legal move they make against celebrities will be intensely scrutinized and more often than not criticized, and second-guessed by the media and the public. More likely they will see them as victims of a vengeful, and jealous legal system bent not on prosecuting their heroes for alleged crimes committed, but on persecuting them because of who they are.
The fate of the nation hardly rests on whether Hilton is convicted or not. In polls the overwhelming majority of respondents said that she should not get special treatment and should serve her sentence like anybody else convicted of a crime. That's not surprising. No one wants to be accused of identifying with let alone be accused of swooning over a celebrity offender. But there's more than a little truth in the claim made by her online petition supporters that Hilton deserves especial treatment because she brings excitement to the mundane lives of the public. It's called the celebrity double standard, and it seduces millions of those star-struck by celebrity antics, and best of all, it jingles the cash registers for the tabloids.
Schwarzenegger, of course, won't pardon her. That would ignite howls of protests from all quarters that the system is hopelessly rigged for the rich and famous. But that's the case anyway, so even if Schwarzenegger pardoned her it would only reconfirm that justice is for sale to the highest celebrity bidder. Free Paris!
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.