By Rashad Grove
Have you heard the one about the man given a lighter prison sentence because he lived an “otherwise blameless” life?
That was the reasoning given by Judge T.S. Ellis III of the United States District Court in Alexandria, VA, when he issued Paul Manafort’s sentence on March 7th, CBS reports. In August, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman was found guilty of five counts of tax fraud, one count of hiding foreign bank accounts, and two counts of bank fraud. According to prosecutors, Manafort hid approximately $55 million dollars of his earnings in offshore accounts, dodged $6 million in taxes, and conned three banks out of $25 million in loans on false premises. Despite a calculated 19-24 year prison sentence looming, Ellis sentenced Manafort to just 47 months behind bars.
Manafort is the latest domino to fall in the Special Counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller, whose team has been investigating the 2016 Trump Presidential campaign with the purpose of discovering whether collusion took place with the Russian government. (Though this sentencing was uncovered during the investigation, these charges against Manafort were not directly tied to the Trump Campaign; separate charges claimed Manafort and a Russian operative tried to obstruct the investigation.) The public rebuke of Manafort’s sentence was swift, with many commentators and pundits displaying their shock that Ellis would be so gracious to Manafort in the wake of his convicted guilt.
From racial bias to the selective discretion of judges, Ellis’s decision highlighted the fundamental brokenness and the lack of faith that people of color have in the criminal justice system in America. On Twitter, noted lawyer and journalist Josie Duffy Rice argued, “Manafort is inevitably going to serve far less time than people with less money and more melanin. We know that. He’s the latest example of the vast divide in the criminal legal system, and that is an injustice on its face.”
According to a 2017 study, most federal judges overseeing white-collar cases hand out sentences well below sentencing guidelines. Routinely, Black and brown people receive harsher prison sentences than their white counterparts, the incarcerated population of America is growing at alarming rates, and an April 2018 report from the Sentencing Project highlighted the “racial disparity that permeates every stage of the United States criminal justice system, from arrest to trial to sentencing to post prison experiences.” But with the deep-seeded fractures that are interwoven in the criminal justice system, are we really surprised that Manafort, who had access to highly influential legal representatives, received significantly less than the minimum recommended sentence?
As the Los Angeles Times points out, the Eastern District of Virginia has a reputation for handing out harsher and longer sentences for those convicted of fraud more than most courts, and Ellis’s reputation is no different: the Daily Beast notes that he sent Tessicar Jumpp for six years after she was guilty of running a financial scam, and he handed out a sentence of 12 years and seven months to former Defense Department employee Lawrence Franklin for passing national defense information to an Israeli diplomat and AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobby group.Yet, Judge Ellis has repeatedly railed against the validity of Mueller’s special investigation,which in hindsight, could be seen as a foreshadowing of how he would sentence Manafort.
On its face, there should be checks and balances in play to keep the system from operating in this way. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was passed with the intention of increasing the consistency in United States federal sentencing, and its guidelines were meant to serve as a check on a judge’s judicial privilege and their ability to hand down biased sentencing. The Act also abolished federal parole. But the implementation hasn’t stopped racial discrimination at every level of the system, including representation; as the Sentencing Project reported, Black and brown people who may not have the financial resources for lawyers and who lack political connections are severely disadvantaged for fair treatment in the criminal justice system in America — regardless of whether they are guilty or innocent. Tragically, they find themselves entangled in a system that was designed to entrap them from very start.
“The ability to afford representation makes a difference,” LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Votes Matter, Black Southern Girls, and featured panelist on BET’s new docuseries Finding Justice, tells MTV News. “But there’s been a documented history of how people of color, particularly Black people have been disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system.”
Brown calls Manafort’s sentencing a “prime example” of such an impact. “The court has a sentencing guidelines and this judge who is known to be a tough judge, literally goes outside the guidelines and gives Manafort one-fifth of the sentence that should be in the within the guidelines. But when a Black elected official, William J. Jefferson, was charged [with] similar crimes, he gave him 13 years in prison,” she adds, pointing to the 2009 case in which Democratic Congressman William J. Jefferson was found guilty of corruption.
When it comes to sentencing in our courts, race is still an undeniable factor. In the American Civil Liberties Union’s report from 2014, racial inequalities are interwoven into the criminal justice system in every stage. It is racial privilege that keeps the machine of the criminal justice system moving. Depending on your social status in America, the justice system will either work for you or against you; Manafort, a rich white man with political connection and expensive attorneys, received a lighter sentencing than many Black and brown people who are in some cases forced to plead guilty to lesser crimes. And for Black and brown people specifically, the empathy extended to Manafort by Ellis was a remainder of how the criminal justice system is often titled against them.
According to Glenn E. Martin, president of GEM Trainers and founder of JustLeadershipUSA, “The most longstanding prison diversion program in America has been white skin and privilege.” Martin views Manafort’s sentencing as “an opportunity for Black and Brown people to highlight the racist hypocrisy in our criminal justice system, but it also opens up the opportunity to push for leveling down for everyone. The compassion and discretion that Manafort experienced should be extended to all defendants, not just those who can afford justice.”
But reforming our criminal justice system is complex, and often feels like an insurmountable task; what good can civilians do in the face of, not just the law, but the laws about the law? According to Brown, “It’s not just how do we just fix it but there has to be a complete recalling and restructuring of the criminal justice system because that entire system was created on the basis of exploitation of black and poor people.”
Similarly, Martin believes that a coalition of Black, brown, and white Americans, who all recognize the historical injustices of the penal system, is essential to building a sustainable movement to address the criminal justice system. He observed, “There’s no history of successful movements that have helped people of color in this country without white people on board. And so while we need to continue to highlight the systemic racism in the system, simultaneously we need to find ways to help typically poor white people see how the system is also demolishing their lives.”
Radically reforming our criminal justice system will not benefit those entrapped in the web the system, but the entire society at large. According to recent studies by the Sentencing Project, over 2.2 million Americans are currently imprisoned, making the United States the undisputed leader in incarceration, and it costs approximately $87 billion a year in taxpayer money to keep the wheels of the criminal justice system in motion.
In order to dismantle an oppressive system, it will demand more than those who are directly affected by it. It will take a Herculean effort of grassroot organizers, courageous politicians, participants from the public and private sector, and and the enactment of equitable public policies that are devoted to a radical reformation of our criminal justice system. Until we can muster the political will to create lasting change in our criminal justice system, the words of activist and author of Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson will remain true: “it’s better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent.”