The busted scales of justice

Paul Manafort, who served as Trump's campaign manager during a critical stretch of the 2016 election, was sentenced last week to 47 months in prison.

Four years is a long time to spend behind bars. But the punishment was a small fraction of the 228 to 288 months recommended under the federal sentencing guidelines for Manafort's financial crimes.

What happened?

Ultimately, Manafort could spend a much longer time incarcerated. He's scheduled to be sentenced for a separate set of crimes this week which could add as much as ten additional years.

But Manafort's sentence exposed a fundamental flaw in the American criminal justice system. It favors defendants who are wealthy white professionals while doling out extremely harsh punishments to most everyone else.

'An otherwise blameless life'

Manafort was convicted of a series of financial crimes spanning more than a decade. He hid hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. government to avoid paying taxes and lied to banks to obtain millions more. His crimes supported a lavish lifestyle, a wardrobe of over $1 million in custom clothing, and a $15,000 ostrich skin jacket.

Manafort's crimes amounted to a multi-million dollar theft from the U.S. government.

And yet Judge T. S. Ellis, who presided over the case, said leniency was justified because -- except for his crimes -- Manafort "lived an otherwise blameless life."

It is doubtful that Ellis, or any other judge, would praise the life choices of someone who shoplifted for ten years. But Manafort was still held in high regard even though his crimes were exponentially larger than any petty criminal. At one point, Ellis questioned whether all of Manafort's crimes were intentional because he was "very busy."

But even Manafort's professional activities that weren't criminal were hardly laudable. He was a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. He "spent a decade as the chief political adviser to a clique of former gangsters in Ukraine."  He represented the interests of murderous dictators in the Philippines and Angola.

After he was caught, he attempted to pressure witnesses to change their testimony and then, after agreeing to cooperate, lied to prosecutors. After all of that, he was still given credit for living, in the view of the judge, an admirable life.

MAGA justice

Judge Ellis appeared biased against Robert Mueller, who brought the case against Manafort. Ellis, parroting the language of Trump, announced at the start of the sentencing that there was nothing "before this court for anything having to do with collusion with the Russian government to influence this election."

This was not true. Manafort violated his cooperation agreement by lying about sending internal Trump polling data to a man prosecutors say is connected to Russian intelligence. It also was irrelevant to Manafort's sentence.

Trump quickly seized on Ellis' comments, falsely claiming the judge determined there was "no collusion" between his campaign and Russia.

Ellis previously asserted, without evidence, that the "true target" of the prosecution was Trump and prosecutors "don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud."

Throughout the trial, in the presence of the jury, Ellis "disparaged the prosecution's evidence, misstated its legal theories, even implied that prosecutors had disobeyed his orders when they had not."

Minimal fairness

One reason that Ellis was able to give Manafort a shorter sentence was because he had the authority to do so. Manafort's financial crimes carry no minimum sentence.

This isn't the case for people convicted of drug crimes, many of which have strict minimum sentences. Ellis, for example, sentenced a 37-year-old man "to a mandatory minimum of 40 years in prison for dealing methamphetamine." More than half of all federal prisoners are serving a mandatory sentence, and about two-thirds of those are on drug-related charges.

The average sentence of federal offenders convicted of crimes subject to a mandatory minimum is 110 months. Offenders whose crimes are not subject to a mandatory minimum serve an average of 27 months.

Defendants like Manafort are afforded leniency by judges in part because they are the only kind of defendants where judges have that option.

A self-perpetuating cycle

Manafort’s lenient sentence is outrageous — not because it’s unusual, but because it’s typical for the crimes he committed. And it means the next fraudster will more likely avoid a lengthy sentence.

A study by USA Today found that the average sentence for fraud in the Eastern District of Virginia, where Manafort was sentenced, was 36 months. Meanwhile, the average sentence for drug trafficking is 84 months.

These statistics influenced Ellis. He announced from the bench that he was departing from the sentencing guidelines because they far exceeded the average sentence in the district for financial fraud. Under the law, Ellis is required to consider sentences handed out for similar offenses.

This creates a self-perpetuating cycle. White collar criminals are given light sentences because previous white collar criminals were given a light sentence. Now Manafort's sentence makes it more likely that the next white collar criminal will be given a light sentence.

The race factor

Judges don't go easy on everyone convicted of fraud. The former Mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, was sentenced to 28 years -- the maximum allowed -- for a variety of financial crimes, including bribery and tax fraud. Unlike Manafort, Kilpatrick expressed remorse before his sentencing.

Ellis himself sentenced former Congressman William Jefferson to 13 years in prison for financial crimes, including receiving a bribe. While Manafort's crimes involved tens of millions of dollars, Jefferson's crimes involved a few hundred thousand dollars. (Jefferson was released early after several of his convictions were overturned.)

Both Kilpatrick and Jefferson are black.

Fixing a broken system

The solution to the flaws in the criminal justice system exposed by the Manafort sentence isn't necessarily to incarcerate people like Manafort longer. America sends many non-violent criminals to prison for far too long.

Crystal Mason, for example, is serving a five-year sentence for trying to vote in the 2016 election. Mason, a mother of three children, didn't realize she wasn't eligible because of a previous conviction. She cast a provisional ballot that was never counted. In Mississippi, a man was sentenced to 12 years in prison for possessing marijuana he legally bought in Oregon. In Georgia, a teen with no prior criminal record was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a pair of sneakers.

There were 2.2 million people behind bars at the end of 2016, amounting to 860 out of every 100,000 people living in the U.S., according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The incarcerated population has exploded in recent decades; it was just 500,000 people in 1980 (310 per 100,000 people).

The World Prison Brief, which has a slightly different methodology, found that the U.S., on a per capita basis, has more of its population behind bars than any other country in the world. The incarceration rate in the U.S. is five times higher than England, six times higher than France, and sixteen times higher than Japan.


Carlson and the Love Sponge

Tucker Carlson lost at least 30 national advertisers in December and January after claiming that immigrants made America "dirtier" and delivering a misogynistic monologue blaming higher pay for women for "out-of-wedlock births… drug and alcohol abuse, [and] higher incarceration rates."

Now Carlson faces more problems.

In a series of interviews unearthed by Media Matters, Carlson managed to offend a radio shock jock named Bubba the Love Sponge. Carlson defended Warren Jeffs, who is currently serving a life sentence for child sexual abuse. According to Carlson, Jeffs should not have been held responsible for facilitating child rape by marrying young girls to grown men.

CARLSON: Look, just to make it absolutely clear. I am not defending underage marriage at all. I just don't think it's the same thing exactly as pulling a child from a bus stop and sexually assaulting that child.

CO-HOST: Yeah, it's -- you know what it is? It's much more planned out and plotted.

THE LOVE SPONGE: Yeah, it should be almost -- you almost should put a premeditation --

CARLSON: Wait, wait! Hold on a second. The rapist, in this case, has made a lifelong commitment to live and take care of the person, so it is a little different. I mean, let's be honest about it.

CARLSON: He's not accused of touching anybody; he is accused of facilitating a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a 27-year-old man. That's the accusation. That's what they're calling felony rape. [crosstalk] That's bullshit. I'm sorry. Now this guy may be [crosstalk], may be a child rapist. I'm just telling you that arranging a marriage between a 16-year-old and a 27-year-old is not the same as pulling a stranger off the street and raping her. That's bullshit.

In another interview, Carlson defended a teacher who repeatedly had sex with a 13-year-old boy, saying she was doing the 13-year-old girls in class a favor.

CARLSON: Of course. And they take that out on 13-year-old girls. Now, 13-year-old boys getting laid, not a bad thing. Thirteen-year-old girls getting laid, bad thing. Particularly if the 13-year-old girl is your daughter, right?

THE LOVE SPONGE: Girls are far more screwed up then we are. We can just have sex and screw and be done with it. They really, like, they keep a part of them.

CARLSON: Exactly. So my point is that teachers like this, not necessarily this one in particular, but they are doing a service to all 13-year-old girls by taking the pressure off. They are a pressure relief valve, like the kind you have on your furnace.

Carlson also said he believed women were "primitive" and "basic."

CARLSON: I mean, I love women, but they're extremely primitive, they're basic, they're not that hard to understand. And one of the things they hate more than anything is weakness in a man.

In a statement, Carlson said that he did not regret anything he had said on the show.

Last advertisers standing

Most of Carlson's national advertisers announced they were dropping the show earlier this year. Other advertisers have quietly stopped airing spots during the show.

But there are a handful of national advertisers still supporting the show, including Bayer, Jenny Craig, and Samsung.


UPDATE: Judge dramatically expands child separation case

Last June, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to reunite thousands of children separated from their parents at the border with their families. The order applied to children who were in the custody of the Trump administration as of June 26, 2018. Ultimately, the order covered about 2800 children, most of whom have now been reunited with their families.

But a report in January from the Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General revealed that thousands of additional children were separated from their families and not tracked. These are children that were released from custody before June 26, 2018 -- but not necessarily to their parents. This was possible because the Inspector General revealed the Trump administration began "separating migrant families as early as July 1, 2017, well before the zero tolerance policy was publicly announced in May of 2018."

The ACLU, which filed the initial suit, petitioned the judge to expand the class of children covered by the order to include those identified in the Inspector General report. The Trump administration opposed expanding the class, arguing it would take too much time to identify the missing children.

On Friday, the judge ruled in favor of the ACLU and expanded the class. "[A]lthough the process for identifying newly proposed class members may be burdensome, it clearly can be done," the court ruled, noting "the profound importance of the reunification effort, which entailed a search for parents who had been separated from their minor children under questionable circumstances."

The court will hold a hearing later this month to determine the next steps.


Thanks for reading!