When Paul Manafort, former campaign manager for President Donald Trump walked into court earlier this week, he faced a recommended sentence of 19 to 24 years. Many were shocked, not to mention outraged, when United States District Judge T.S. Ellis, instead handed down a sentence of just 47 months.
While many on social media and elsewhere continue to criticize the relatively light sentence, there are a number of institutional elements of the U.S. justice system that set the stage for such an outcome, The Atlantic reports. Here are six of them:
- Resources are limited when it comes to investigations like this. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States Department of Justice shifted resources away from white collar crimes — like those committed by Manafort — in favor of paying more attention to crimes associated with drugs, guns, and immigration. Without robust investigations of individuals like Manafort, building a case against them can be challenging.
- Federal prosecutors still have a big impact on sentencing. Prosecutors — in this case, the special counsel’s office — have great discretion in how they prioritize and pursue criminals. In many cases, they might choose to aggressively pursue traditionally violent or generally frightening criminals over those accused of committing white-collar financial crimes with no obvious victim.
- Congress has forced judges’ hands in some cases, but not others. Lawmakers have made examples of plenty of criminals through mandatory minimum sentences with which judges must comply. While these minimums often apply to more blue-collar crimes, they are rarely passed for misdeeds like Manafort’s.
- Leniency begets leniency. In Manafort’s case, Ellis stated that the recommended range was much higher than what he typically sees in punishments for similar cases. This means that because previous white-collar criminals managed to secure lighter sentences, it is more likely to continue in the future, regardless of sentencing guidelines.
- An expensive defense pays off. While Manafort’s expensive legal defense — which cost more than most will make in their entire lives — couldn’t help him escape a conviction, the sentencing outcomes for the well-defended are reliably better than for those with a less robust defense.
- Judges are humans, too. While (under the best of circumstances) a judge has the responsibility to remain impartial, they — like the rest of us — are humans, too. They suffer the same biases and prejudices as the rest of the population, and may or may not be able to set those aside when they put on their black robes.
Comparing Manafort to all white collar criminals is like comparing El Chapo to all drug dealers. Manafort’s guidelines were much higher than most because fraud total was $55 million, did not accept responsibility, sophisticated scheme and organizer role. https://t.co/1G3qoe725H
— Barb McQuade (@BarbMcQuade) March 9, 2019