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Column: Jussie Smollett is already disgraced. Does he really need to be imprisoned?

Former "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett arriving for a court appearance
Former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett arriving for a court appearance in February 2020.
(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

Mary J. Blige has nine Grammys.

Jennifer Hudson has two and an Oscar.

Courtney Love is a rock legend, and Timbaland is one of the most successful producers in the history of recording.

And yet it was Jussie Smollett’s “Good Enough” that executives decided to make the lead song on the soundtrack for the first season of “Empire” — instead of a track from any of those legends involved in the show. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart in 2015 and went on to receive a Grammy nomination. Meanwhile the TV show, which at one point pulled in more than 17 million viewers, earned a handful of Emmy nominations.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

Smollett was a rising star.

But today, he is a punchline.

“What the hell was he thinking?” Chris Rock asked the audience during the 2019 NAACP Image Awards, at which Smollett was a nominee. “From now on I ain’t never gonna [say] no ‘Jussie.’ You’re a Jessie from now on. You don’t get the ‘u’ no more. That ‘u’ was respect. You don’t get no respect from me.”

On Thursday, Smollett was found guilty on five of six felony counts of disorderly conduct for making a false report to Chicago police, claiming he was the victim of a hate crime. Smollett had said he was attacked with a noose in Chicago late one night by Trump supporters yelling homophobic and racist slurs. Smollett, who maintains his innocence and plans to appeal, is facing up to three years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

The fine I am more than OK with, but at this point, why send him to jail?

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He’s lost his hit show and career. He’ll be mocked for this chapter, most likely for the rest of his life. It is a prison of a different sort. It is the prison in which the justice system decided to place former Rep. Aaron Schock. He had faced a 24-count indictment in 2016 alleging theft of government funds, filing false tax returns, filing false reports with federal election officials and wire fraud. But not long after Smollett was arrested in 2019, all of the charges against Schock were dropped by Chicago prosecutors under the conditions of good behavior and repaying the money.

Now there are differences between the two cases, but the overall point is this: Jail isn’t the only option our justice system uses to punish those who abuse the public’s trust.

And I understand the anger against Smollett, because I held it too. When the story initially broke that he had been attacked, progressive politicians and celebrities alike rushed to social media to show support. When Smollett was arrested on suspicion of making it all up, it wasn’t just that goodwill that was gone. A bit of media credibility went with it. Conservative carnival barkers had already been accusing the mainstream media of being biased against President Trump, and they used the credulous coverage of Smollett as evidence.

Disappointed by the latest developments, I went on CNN to talk about the case wearing a T-shirt that read “based on real events” and later called Smollett “the boy who cried MAGA,” adding “how can anyone like someone who diverts detective hours away from solving actual crimes or goes on ‘Good Morning America’ to chastise people who doubted his fictitious claims?”

So I’m not blindly advocating for leniency.

I just know that was all a long time ago. I just know I’m in a different place, and the country is in a much different place. There was a domestic terrorist attack at the Capitol that left more Americans dead than the attack in Benghazi, Libya, and so far the longest sentence handed down has been 41 months for attacking a police officer. Smollett could get 36 months for lying to one. Doesn’t seem like apples to apples to me.

The court should force Smollett to pay his debt to society in the same manner as Schock: with cash and shame. Maybe Smollett can rebuild his career. Maybe he won’t. Either way he’ll always remember it took him seven auditions to land the role on “Empire” and just one night to throw his career out the window.

That feels like punishment enough.

@LZGranderson


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