On Thursday Evening President Trump’s former Campaign Head, Paul Manafort, finally faced his day of reckoning in federal court for his crimes of bank and tax fraud. But what was expected to be a very bad day for Manafort turned into a somewhat moral victory for his attorneys when he was sentenced to only 47 months in prison for his actions. Judge T.S. Elliot significantly departed from the guidelines which called for a sentence as high as 24 years in prison. Noting that the sentencing guidelines were “excessive” and “quite high” the judge commented that Manafort had previously lived an “otherwise blameless life.” While some have praised the judge’s ruling, others have cited it as yet another example of sentencing disparity between whites who are wealthy versus minorities who are indigent.
One of the most vocal voices for this apparent disparity is Assistant Public Defender, Scott Hechinger. He works in the Brooklyn office of New York City’s Public Defender’s office and cites many cases of his own clients. One case in particular seems to be a perfect example in Mr. Hechinger’s mind. That matter involves a client who was offered 3 years in prison for stealing $100.00 worth of quarters from a laundry room. That client is indigent.
But whatever side you align yourself on in this debate, Manafort’s sentencing seems to reflect on a greater issue than mere disparity in sentencing. Sentencing guidelines were put in place to address this very concern. The policy behind these laws were to ensure that the sentence one received in front of judge A was the same if not at least similar to the sentence for the same crime in front of judge B. Yet recently, with America’s jail population exploding, legislature bodies across the country have sought to withdraw from guidelines and put more discretion back in the hands of judges. Under the new First Step Act which passed late last year, the Federal Government recognized this very concern. Additionally, the Florida Legislature plans to take on a similar bill this session targeted at drug offenders.
But is the Manafort sentencing a call to hit the pause button on First Step Acts? For if First Step legislation puts discretion back in the hands of judges, don’t we risk what happened in Manafort’s case occurring with greater frequency? Perhaps what Manafort’s sentencing should direct attention to is the policy behind the guidelines? If the bottom line behind society’s motivation is fairness, maybe instead of throwing out the sentencing laws and putting more discretion in the hands of the judges, we simply need to make the guidelines themselves fairer. If we do not want someone to spend 25 years in prison for a drug offense, then instead of having a judge make that call how about we create a sentencing scheme that reflects the view that a fair sentencing is something less.
Whatever the end result may be, it will be interesting to see what Manafort’s sentencing in state court this week will be. Will the judge there follow her federal colleague and divert to a lesser sentence. Or will she find Manafort’s lawyers less compelling and impose a ten-year sentence to run after the Federal sentence. While only time will tell, the simple fact this question even exists may be the true issue with our criminal sentencing system.
-By Marc Consalo, Director of the Center for Law and Policy