Paul Manafort

Paul Manafort's Lenient Prison Sentence Isn't the Travesty—the Rest of the System Is

The problem isn't that a judge went easy on a rich defendant. It's that mandatory minimums make it impossible to do the same in many other cases.


Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS/Newscom

A federal judge has sentenced international sleazebag and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to 47 months in prison. This was a dramatic downward departure from the federal sentencing guidelines, which recommended 19 to 24 years in prison for Manafort's panoply of criminal offenses, but U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III declared that Manafort "has lived an otherwise blameless life." It was surely the first time the word "blameless" has been uttered in the same breath as Manafort's name.

The sentence has sparked outrage from many who felt it was a mere slap on the wrist. For instance, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) says Manafort's sentence shows the "absolute unfairness" of the justice system.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y) has chimed in on Twitter. "Paul Manafort getting such little jail time for such serious crimes lays out for the world how it's almost impossible for rich people to go to jail for the same amount of time as someone who is lower income," she wrote. "In our current broken system, 'justice' isn't blind. It's bought."

The reaction to Manafort's sentence is understandable. There is a gut revulsion when one sees a rich prat get off easy while less fortunate people are railroaded daily. We instinctively feel it's wrong when, say, the feds cut a sweetheart deal with ultra-rich Jeffrey Epstein to avoid prosecuting him when there was credible evidence that he was a serial sexual predator.

Many compared Manafort's sentence to Crystal Mason, a Texas woman who received five years in state prison for mistakenly voting while she was on parole. I've interviewed numerous people who received outrageous sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, like a woman who was sentenced to life in federal prison for trading a few bottles of sudafed for meth.

But the problem with Manafort's sentence isn't that the judge departed from the guidelines that are routinely used to lock away poor defendants for decades. The problem is that the guidelines are that high to begin with—and that in most of the drug and gun cases that federal judges oversee, their hands are tied by mandatory minimum sentencing laws, unlike in many white-collar cases.

As legal commentator and former federal prosecutor Ken White explains in The Atlantic, several factors make Manafort's sentence more than just a simple example of a judge showing favor to a wealthy white defendant:

[T]he U.S. sentencing guidelines treat some crimes more harshly than others, and though, unlike mandatory minimums, they are only recommendations, not strictures, they strongly influence judges. USA Today reported that fraud cases in Ellis's district yielded an average sentence of 36 months, versus 66 months for firearms charges and 84 months for drug charges, all higher than the national average. Ellis announced that he was sentencing Manafort below the recommended guideline range because that range was far above what defendants received in similar cases. That is, in fact, a factor that he's required by law to consider. Manafort's case was arguably much more serious than others, but there's no question that his sentencing range was atypically high for a white-collar defendant. This is how the system's discrepancies become self-justifying and self-perpetuating: Judges give white-collar criminals lower sentences because white-collar criminals typically get lower sentences.

The answer to disparities in the criminal justice system isn't to call for harsher punishments. Pillorying judges who go easy on well-heeled defendants—the successful recall of the California judge who sentenced Brock Turner, for example—doesn't make them more likely to show mercy to defendants who statistically receive longer sentences on average. It makes them less likely to show mercy, period. Indeed, concern over judicial bias is what largely led to the end of indeterminate sentencing in states like California and the rise of mandatory minimums.

Meanwhile, four years in federal lockup is nothing to sniff at, even in the minimum-security camp Manafort will likely end up in. In any case, Manafort will face sentencing by another judge next week for violations of foreign lobbying laws, and that judge could slap him with up to 10 more years in prison.

He'll have plenty of time to think about his crimes. The tragedy is he'll be serving it alongside people doing far more for far less.