Paul Manafort’s light sentence from a Virginia federal judge was an unlikely candidate to become the latest example of a conflict that has vexed legal professionals and activists for decades: systemic inequality in the criminal justice system, the Washington Post reports.
The 47-month term was perceived as a high-profile instance of the justice system working one way for a wealthy, well-connected man, while working in another, harsher, way for indigent defendants facing lesser crimes. Ari Melber of NBC News tweeted that the penalty “is a reminder of the blatant inequities in our justice system that we all know about, because they reoccur every week in courts across America.”
Under sentencing guidelines, Manafort faced up to 24 years in prison for bank fraud and for cheating on his taxes, yet Judge T.S. Ellis called that calculation was “excessive.” Manafort’s crimes were “very serious,” Ellis said, but they didn’t warrant keeping the 69-year-old imprisoned into his 90s. Duncan Levin, a former federal prosecutor, said Manafort, who once agreed to cooperate with prosecutors but then was found to have lied to them, got a sentence that resembled someone’s who did not renege on their cooperation agreement.
“His crimes went on for an extremely long time, at the very highest levels of our government and deeply affected our democracy,” Levin said. “To get away with it for such a short sentence is something that is absolutely mind-boggling.”
Scott Hechinger of Brooklyn Defender Services cited a client who was offered a 36-to-72-month sentence for stealing $100 in quarters from a laundry room. The client may wind up doing more time than Manafort, who defrauded the Internal Revenue Service out of $6 million. Other lawyers argued that Manafort’s sentence underscores “a broader problem: white collar crimes … just aren’t taken seriously,” said Louis Laverone, an international financial crimes attorney.
The Post called it “a spectacular fall for a once high-flying political consultant who told the judge he is now ‘humiliated and ashamed.’ ” Manafort had faced up to 24 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, but Judge Ellis called that calculation “excessive,” and said the sentence he imposed was more in line with those of others convicted of similar crimes. Ellis noted that Manafort has been “a good friend” and a “generous person” but that “can’t erase the criminal activity.”
The judge expressed some sympathy for Manafort, 69, saying, “He’s lived an otherwise blameless life,” Ellis said. The judge noted Manafort had “earned the admiration of a number of people” who wrote letters of support. Manafort told the judge, “The last two years have been the most difficult years for my family and I. To say that I feel humiliated and ashamed would be a gross understatement.”
Manafort did not apologize for his crimes, but thanked the judge for how he had conducted the trial. He added, My life is professionally and financially in shambles,” saying the “media frenzy” had taken a toll on him, but that he hopes “to turn the notoriety into a positive and show who I really am.” Manafort faces another reckoning next week in a conspiracy case in Washington, D.C., in which he could be given a prison term of up to 10 years.