Manafort’s light sentence prompts anger and resentment

BALTIMORE – Years ago, doing some reporting on Maryland’s prisons, I spent enough time at the state penitentiary to ask a rather personal question of an inmate there known as Big Jake, an odd nickname since his real first name was Fred.

“How long are you in for?” I asked Big Jake.

“I got life plus 20 years,” he said.

“Wow,” I said, “that’s a long time.”

“Yeah,” said Big Jake. “I still haven’t figured out how I’m gonna serve that 20.”

He laughed ruefully. He got the little joke. He knew he belonged here, after some awful street violence. But he also knew there was no way he was going to serve time behind bars beyond his actual life. Life-plus-20 was simply some sentencing judge’s way of assuring Big Jake was never going to mix with civilized people ever again.

It was the judge’s gesture of institutional overkill. I think of it now because of the opposite – of the under-kill sentencing the other day of Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman.

Manafort received 47 months in federal prison, since a decade’s worth of tax evasion and bank fraud and related criminality are considered (by some) to be civilized offenses, gentleman’s crimes. The perpetrator is not considered a physical danger to society. So what’s the good of spending a long stretch outside of society?

Judge T.S. Ellis III did the sentencing, for which he’s unleashed great howls of anger all across the country. Some of the loudest protests have come from prosecutors and from public defenders. Many have pointed to sentencing guidelines that recommended a prison term of 19 to24 years – years, not months – for Manafort, who is 69.

Others, let’s be honest about this, want him punished for his ties to Trump, and his brazen lying, and his attempts to weasel out of his plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller, and his years of dealing with foreign adversaries (though this trial had nothing to do with any of the famous Russian collusion allegations tied to the Trump campaign.)

In defending the light sentencing, Judge Ellis said, “Go and spend a day in the jail or penitentiary of the federal government. Spend a week there. He has to spend 47 months.”

Ellis makes a good point, and one that’s too narrow, at that. It’s not just the federal prisons that are a horror. So are the state joints. Many are old and vulnerable to the weather, and the noise of embittered, angry, lonely human beings can be incessant all night long. The experience is dehumanizing, which is one reason so many inmates come out tougher and more criminally savvy than when they went in – and subsequently wind up behind bars all over again.

Ellis is right about life in prison – it’s rough. But, if it’s rough for Manafort, it’s also rough for every other person spending time behind bars. In America, we’ve got more than 2 million people in various prisons, plus millions more in various states of parole and probation.

And a lot of them have gotten far heavier sentences than Manafort, though some have committed crimes far less damaging to those around them. At the Maryland Penitentiary, everybody was doing multiple-year stretches.

When I met with Big Jake, it was part of an entire year I spent covering Maryland’s prisons. Two things were immediately striking. One was the overwhelming percentage of inmates whose offenses were tied, one way or another, to drugs.

The other was the overwhelming percentage of people of color, which remains true today.

That’s the other thing about Manafort’s sentencing that angers a lot of people. It’s a reminder of those who can buy the best legal defense, and those who can’t.

“If the failed war on drugs and the era of mass incarceration have taught us anything,” Cristian Farias, writes in The New York Times, “it is that there are two tracks of justice: one for those who can afford expensive defense counsel and who can move heaven and earth to receive mercy, and one for everyone else.

“People like Mr. Manafort, when caught cheating taxpayers of millions of dollars, receive discretion and kid-glove treatment, while drug dealers and less sophisticated defendants – in Judge Ellis’s courtroom and elsewhere – are subject to draconian minimum sentences.”

That’s what has so many people angry today about Judge Ellis. It’s not just the brevity of Manafort’s sentence – it’s the reminder of so many people doing much harder time even though their crimes, and their damage to large numbers of victims, weren’t as profound as his.

One thought on “Manafort’s light sentence prompts anger and resentment

  • March 10, 2019 at 7:09 PM

    Money has always been the root of evil. My question is…Why isn’t there a sentence for tax fraud that is standard for all? That’s the problem.

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