FYI: Are the rich and famous really treated to a different kind of justice than the rest of us?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 December, 2007, 12:00am

Kiefer Sutherland, star of groundbreaking TV thriller 24, has become the latest celebrity to contemplate life behind bars, having rolled up to the city jail in Glendale, California, to begin a 48-day term for a second drink-driving offence. Considering the relatively lenient sentence - under state law Sutherland could have been locked up for a year - the case has once again sparked grumbles about the justice system's tendency to handle the famous with kid gloves.

There's no shortage of examples of apparently favourable treatment. In June, socialite Paris Hilton

was released after completing only 22 days of a 45-day sentence connected to a probation violation, a punishment that her lawyer was brave enough to argue was excessively harsh; he said she shouldn't have had to do any time at all. And one-time Hollywood darling Lindsay Lohan's fall from grace included a mere one day in jail in November for multiple drink-driving and drug violations.

In August, Hilton's friend Nicole Richie did even better, spending only 82 minutes in the slammer after receiving a four-day sentence, also for drug-related lapses behind the wheel.

The phenomenon is by no means confined to the United States. Five years ago, Hong Kong singer and actor Nicholas Tse Ting-fung, then 21, avoided a jail sentence when a judge assigned him 240 hours of community service for crashing his Ferrari in Central then claiming his driver, who wasn't even in the vehicle, was at fault. Tse spent just two weeks in Pik Uk Minimum Security Prison awaiting sentencing but the driver, who lied to cover Tse's tracks, was handed four months.

Politicians and their kin also boast an uncanny ability to dodge the heavier blows of the law. Judges in the Philippines were so convinced of ex-president Joseph Estrada's corrupt practices they condemned him to reclusion perpetua, a sentence designed to replace capital punishment that is virtually synonymous with life in prison. Not for Estrada though - he was pardoned just days after being sentenced, although he had had to endure almost seven years of rather-pampered house arrest awaiting a verdict.

Tommy Suharto, son of the despotic Indonesian leader, must have been relieved when he was ordered to serve a 15-year stretch in 2002 for financing the assassination of a judge who had ruled against him in the past - a crime that could have seen him jailed for life. Suharto walked out of Jakarta's Cipinang Penitentiary after four years.

While the Suharto and Estrada cases are obvious exhibits of special treatment, things aren't always as they appear. Tse received the maximum possible sentence for his crime under Hong Kong law, since he was considered a young offender at the time.

And a Los Angeles Times investigation into California's criminal justice system found that, thanks to the state's desperation to ease crowding at prisons by releasing non-violent offenders, Hilton stuck it out for far longer than most people incarcerated for drink-driving; they walk free after an average of four days. Her term was closer to the norm for more serious crimes, such as assault, burglary and domestic violence.

Glendale officer John Balian has said Sutherland, who will be expected to help out in the laundry and kitchen, 'will be working here for [the full] 48 days'. We'll see.