'Justice is bought': Paul Manafort sentencing draws accusations of privilege

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says justice system ‘broken’ as lawyers compare jail time to that of low-level offenders

Lawyers and politicians have voiced their outrage at the 47-month prison sentence handed to Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, for bank and tax fraud, arguing that white privilege and wealth had led to privileged treatment under the law.

Manafort had pleaded with the judge, TS Ellis, to show compassion in his sentencing at the court in Virginia. The federal sentencing guidelines for serious fraud cases such as this are between 19 and 24 years in prison, but Ellis described the guidelines as “excessive” and “out of whack”, saying Manafort had no prior criminal history and had lived “an otherwise blameless life”.

The judge sentenced Manafort to three years and 11 months behind bars, acknowledging: “I don’t expect the sentence I’m about to announce to meet with everyone’s approval.”

It was met with a wave of anger from many. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the popular and outspoken Democrat who is US Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district, tweeted that Manafort’s sentence showed that “in our current broken system, ‘justice’ isn’t blind. It’s bought.”

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.

In our current broken system, “justice” isn’t blind. It’s bought. https://t.co/1UgBXmR8bl

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) March 8, 2019

“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.”

Democrat senator Elizabeth Warren, who is running for president in 2020, was equally scathing. “Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, commits bank and tax fraud and gets 47 months. A homeless man, Fate Winslow, helped sell $20 of pot and got life in prison. The words above the Supreme Court say “Equal Justice Under Law”—when will we start acting like it?” she tweeted.

Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, commits bank and tax fraud and gets 47 months. A homeless man, Fate Winslow, helped sell $20 of pot and got life in prison. The words above the Supreme Court say "Equal Justice Under Law"—when will we start acting like it?

— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) March 8, 2019

Much of the outrage came from lawyers, in particular public defenders who often represented those from underprivileged backgrounds.They used Manafort’s case as an example of racial disparity in the US justice system. A study of US sentencing data last year found that when black men and white men commit the same crime, black men receive a sentence almost 20% longer on average.

Public defender Scott Hechinger pointed out that “for context on Manafort’s 47 months in prison, my client yesterday was offered 36-72 months in prison for stealing $100 worth of quarters from a residential laundry room”.

Citing another example, Hechinger said: “Three years ago, in the court in which I work, a Brooklyn teenager was sentenced to 19 years (15 more than Manafort) for setting a mattress on fire that inadvertently lead to the death of a responding officer for smoke inhalation.”

He added: “I am not making the argument for harsher sentences for anyone including Manafort. I am simply pointing out the outrageous disparity between his treatment and others, disproportionately poor and people of color.”

Hechinger was echoed by New York public defender Rebecca J Kavanagh. “While Paul Manafort just received a less than 4 year prison sentence for massive financial fraud, I have a client serving 3 and a half to 7 years in prison for stealing laundry detergent from a drug store,” she said.

While Paul Manafort just received a less than 4 year prison sentence for massive financial fraud, I have a client serving 3 and a half to 7 years in prison for stealing laundry detergent from a drug store. pic.twitter.com/I38uq9WkXK

— Rebecca J. Kavanagh (@DrRJKavanagh) March 8, 2019

Lawyer and former public defender Neil W. Blackmon pointed out how rare it was for a judge to choose to override sentencing guidelines for those not of Manafort’s status.

“A federal judge defying the sentencing guidelines on the grounds they are ‘excessive’ is a luxury I wish my former PD clients received,” he tweeted. “It’s fair to use the Manafort sentence as a scathing indictment of the justice system’s tendency to treat and sentence defenders differently based on status.”

It's fair to use the Manafort sentence as a scathing indictment of the justice system's tendency to treat and sentence defenders differently based on status.

— Neil W. Blackmon (@nwblackmon) March 8, 2019

Much of the criticism focused on the difference in sentencing received by Manafort and Crystal Mason, a black woman who accidentally committed voter fraud in the 2016 election, having voted when she was not eligible and was given a five-year-jail term, despite expressing full remorse for her actions.

“White privilege: Paul Manafort hides $55m in secret offshore accts to avoid paying $6m tax, defrauds 3 banks of $25m, lies, shows no remorse, sentence recommend 19-24 yrs, gets only 47 mths. Crystal Mason accidentally votes in 2016 U.S. election, shows remorse, gets 5 yrs jail,” wrote one user on Twitter.

Others compared the case to Kalief Browder, who was jailed for three years at New York’s Rikers Island after being accused of stealing a backpack as a teenager, charges that were ultimately dismissed. He killed himself after being released from jail.

“Kalief Browder was left to rot in Rikers for three years. Denied bail. All for a backpack he never stole. But Manafort cat walks into the court, and moonwalks out with a slap on the wrist. Two justice systems,” tweeted actor and activist Francis Maxwell.

White privilege:

Paul Manafort hides $55m in secret offshore accts to avoid paying $6m tax, defrauds 3 banks of $25m, lies, shows no remorse, sentence recommend 19-24 yrs, gets only 47 mths.

Crystal Mason accidentally votes in 2016 U.S. election, shows remorse, gets 5 yrs jail. pic.twitter.com/4MpjUja2ey

— Martin Walsh (@martinwalsh) March 8, 2019

Paul Manafort was just sentenced to less than 4 YEARS for committing multiple felonies, including tax and bank fraud

Crystal Mason is serving FIVE YEARS for trying to vote in the 2016 election. (She didn't realize she was ineligible due to a prior conviction.)

— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) March 8, 2019

Paul Manafort’s lenient 4-year sentence — far below the recommended 20 years despite extensive felonies and post-conviction obstruction — 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

— Ari Melber (@AriMelber) March 8, 2019

Some critics argued Manafort’s sentence was actually fair – but hit a nerve because so many other defendants are hit with unfairly harsh punishments.

“47 months is a very long time and I think the only reason we don’t think of a 47 month sentence as a very harsh punishment is that American sentences are cruelly and unreasonably long so it looks short compared to other high-profile punishments,” wrote ThinkProgress columnist Ian Millhiser.

Manafort also faces sentencing in a separate case in Washington on 13 March on two conspiracy charges to which he pleaded guilty last September. While he faces a statutory maximum of 10 years in the Washington case, Judge Amy Berman Jackson could potentially stack that on top of the prison time Ellis has imposed.

• This article was amended on 8 March 2019 to correct one instance where the Manafort sentence was said to be “four years and 11 months” behind bars.

Contributor

Hannah Ellis-Petersen

The GuardianTramp

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