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Manafort sentence prompts debate over judicial system’s ‘blatant inequities’

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Manafort faced up to 24 years in prison. He got 47 months.

Paul Manafort departs U.S. District Court on November 2017 in Washington.
Paul Manafort departs U.S. District Court on November 2017 in Washington.Read moreBill O'Leary

The sentencing of Paul Manafort, former chairman of President Trump's campaign, was highly anticipated, capping a significant chapter in Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation. But it 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.

Yet, as a federal judge handed down his sentence in jam-packed Alexandria, Virginia, courtroom Thursday, and observers digested the judge’s decision — 47 months — Manafort’s case was immediately 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.

"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," said Ari Melber, a legal analyst for NBC News, in a Thursday-night tweet.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Manafort faced up to 24 years in prison for bank fraud and for cheating on his taxes, yet U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis said that calculation was "excessive." Manafort's crime's were "very serious," Ellis said, but they didn't warrant a punishment that could keep the 69-year-old imprisoned into his 90s.

Duncan Levin, a former federal prosecutor and expert in financial crimes, said Manafort's sentence was very light "by any stretch of the imagination." Manafort, who once agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors but then was found to have lied to them, got a sentence that resembled one given to someone who did not renege on their cooperation agreement, Levin said.

"His crimes went on for an extremely long time, at the very highest levels of our government and deeply affected our democracy," Levin told The Washington Post. "To get away with it for such a short sentence is something that is absolutely mind-boggling."

However, he said, federal judges are not required to adhere to sentencing guidelines, which serve only as recommendations to judges. Ultimately, they are free to depart from the guidelines and come up with any number they see as appropriate.

"It seems pretty light to me, and to a lot of people," Levin said. "But that is squarely in the purview of the judge to do."

The sentencing inspired a flood of lawyers to dig through news clips and their own recent cases. What they found was dozens of examples of defendants who, in their view, were no where nearly as fortunate as Manafort.

Scott Hechinger, a senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, an organization that provides legal representation to defendants who cannot afford it, used one of his recent clients, who was just offered a 36-to-72-month sentence, as an example. The crime? Stealing $100-worth of quarters from a residential laundry room. Hechinger's client may wind up doing more time than Manafort, a man who defrauded the Internal Revenue Service out of $6 million.

Hechinger listed a half dozen more examples. Among them were a Brooklyn teenager who got a 19-years-to-life sentence for burning a mattress in the hallway of his apartment building, resulting in the smoke-inhalation death of an officer who responded to the scene. He also cited the case of Cyrstal Mason, an ex-felon who was sent back to prison for five years after voting in the 2016 presidential election while on probation — an act she says she didn't know was illegal.

Other lawyers argued that Manafort's sentence underscores "a broader problem: white collar crimes (e.g. fraud, money laundering) just aren't taken seriously," wrote Louis Laverone, an international financial crimes attorney.

Laverone cited the case of one Turkish banker who was charged with participating in a multi-billion-dollar scheme, violating U.S. economic sanctions. In that case, guidelines called for a possible 105-year sentence. The banker got 32 months.

Judge Ellis is a Reagan appointee, known as tough and no-nonsense. But, in recent years, he has publicly complained about laws that impose cumbersome sentences, as Politico illustrated in a 2018 profile. In one striking example from that report, Ellis sentenced a 37-year-old to a mandatory minimum of 40 years in prison for dealing methamphetamine.

"This situation presents me with something I have no discretion to change and the only thing I can do is express my displeasure," the judge said. "I chafe a bit at that, but I follow the law. If I thought it was blatantly immoral, I'd have to resign. It's wrong, but not immoral."

In that man's case, the crime's mandatory minimum sentence forced Ellis's hand. But for Manafort, Levin said, there was no such requirement, no mandatory minimum.

Because Manafort has already spent nine months in jail, his sentence could end in fewer than three years. But he still faces sentencing next week for a conspiracy charged in D.C. federal court, which could result in up to an additional 10 years.

In a tweet, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a former prosecutor and presidential candidate, also denounced what she characterized as a lenient sentence. "Crimes committed in an office building should be treated as seriously as crimes committed on a street corner," she said. "Can't have two systems of justice!"

Hechinger and other advocates of criminal justice reform who weighed in on Manafort's sentence stressed that they were not calling for harsher overall punishment — simply a justice system that was a little more just.

"I'm not advocating here or anywhere for worse treatment for all," he said. "Just wish my clients received same treatment as the privileged few."

The Washington Post’s Deanna Paul contributed to this article.