The Full House and Desperate Housewives stars face up to 5 years in prison each
On Wednesday, the Full House and Desperate Housewives stars appeared alongside other wealthy parents in U.S. District Court in Boston for the first time since they were charged, in March, with allegedly taking part in a $25 million scheme to get their children into top colleges.
During their preliminary hearings, they were both read the federal felony charges they face after their arrests in March: conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.
The charges carry a potential maximum sentence of five years for each actress.
The federal prosecutors who charged them mean business, attorney William Moran of the New York law firm Otterbourg, P.C., tells PEOPLE.
“They are being prosecuted very rigorously,” he says. “These are serious crimes.”
On March 12, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts announced that it had caught 50 people in its dragnet, including Huffman and Loughlin, her husband, fashion designer J. Mossimo Giannulli, college coaches from top universities including University of Southern California, Yale and Georgetown, and high-powered business owners. They were indicted on charges of falsifying SAT scores and lying about their athletic skills, among other alleged crimes.
Huffman, 56, allegedly gave $15,000 “to participate in the college entrance exam cheating scheme on behalf of her oldest daughter,” the indictment states.
Loughlin was arrested in Los Angeles on March 13. She is now free on $1 million bond.
Her attorney did not respond to PEOPLE’s requests for comment.
Huffman was arrested on March 12 and is now free on $250,000 bond. Her attorney did not respond to PEOPLE’s requests for comment.
Neither actress has entered a plea of guilt or innocence yet.
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One big question looms: Could they be sentenced to time behind bars?
While one expert previously told PEOPLE he does not believe they will become federal inmates, Moran says otherwise.
“There is definitely a chance they can go to prison,” he says.
They could also get probation and no prison time if they are found guilty or plead guilty, says Moran. The federal judge will listen to the U.S. Attorney’s recommendations for sentencing, he says.
“I think these prosecutors want to make an example here so they don’t have to do this again. If parents now know that they could be prosecuted and go to jail for this, that might be a factor that would prevent someone from doing this again.”
The judge will also use sentencing guidelines, which work on a point system, to determine their punishments, he says.
“The judge will look at a number of criteria to determine how much time, if any, they will do,” he says. “I’m assuming they don’t have any criminal record, which is a point in their favor,” he says.
Other factors could increase the chance they could serve time, such as participating in a crime that involves identity theft or misrepresenting something about a charity.
“Some of the allegations involved someone allegedly using someone else’s identity to take a test, or parents claiming they sent money to the organization as a charitable contribution,” he says. “If that’s the case, then it would go above a threshold that would require some jail time under the sentencing guidelines.”
Even if prosecutors strike deals with Loughlin, Huffman and the others, they could still possibly go to prison, he says.
“There’s a chance,” he says. “It will come down again to those sentencing guidelines and what the prosecutor requests.”
“There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either,” U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said during a press conference in March when his office announced the indictments.