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Paul Manafort sentence highlights inequality in justice system

Paul Manafort sentence highlights inequality in justice system
  (Los Angeles Times)

By many standards, four years in prison is a tough sentence for a 69-year-old man with no prior criminal convictions.

Not, however, by the standard typically used for criminal defendants in much of the United States, where courts routinely hand out sentences harsher than those imposed in many other developed countries.

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Because of that, the 47-month sentence that Judge T.S. Ellis III gave Paul Manafort on eight felony convictions for tax cheating and bank fraud drew immediate controversy.

LENIENCY AT THE TOP

Federal sentencing guidelines called for roughly 20 years in prison for Manafort’s crimes, but Ellis dismissed that as harsh and “excessive,” as Chris Megerian wrote.

That’s a consistent position for Ellis, who has long criticized federal sentencing rules that limit a judge’s discretion, but it generated outrage among many criminal defense lawyers and former prosecutors.

“My client yesterday was offered 36-72 months in prison for stealing $100 worth of quarters from a residential laundry room,” Scott Hechinger, a senior staff lawyer at the public defender’s office in Brooklyn, wrote on Twitter — one of several comments that rocketed through social media in the aftermath of Manafort’s sentencing.

Ellis anticipated some of that reaction.

Anyone who thinks Manafort’s sentence is too lenient should “go and spend a day, a week in jail or in the federal penitentiary. He has to spend 47 months,” Ellis said in his courtroom in Alexandria, Va., as he handed down the sentence, which also requires Manafort to pay millions of dollars in restitution.

Hechinger did not dispute that point.

“I am not making the argument for harsher sentences for anyone including Manafort,” he wrote. “I am simply pointing out the outrageous disparity between his treatment and others, disproportionately poor & people of color.”

That’s a recurrent theme whenever well-funded, white-collar criminal cases attract public attention: The system treats the wealthy and powerful far more leniently than the poor and weak.

Indeed, when treatment comes close to equal, howls of protest often ensue. A recent example came in another case involving special counsel Robert Mueller’s office.

When federal agents arrived at Roger Stone’s home in Florida to arrest him in January, President Trump protested.

“For a team of 29 people with AK-27s, or whatever they were using, to charge a house like they did at 6:00 in the morning, I think that was a very sad thing for this country,” Trump said in an interview with the New York Times in which he added a nonexistent weapon to the FBI’s arsenal as he condemned as unfair a very standard police practice.

Ellis’ won’t be the last word on Manafort’s total sentence. Next week the former Trump campaign chairman is scheduled for sentencing in a separate but related federal case in Washington, D.C.

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Ellis had consistently shown sympathy toward Manafort in his Virginia trial, as Megerian and Eliza Fawcett noted in their profile of the judge last year. In the D.C. case, Judge Amy Berman Jackson has not.

Jackson could sentence Manafort up to 10 years and also can decide if the two sentence can overlap or must be served one after the other.

Whether Manafort will serve his sentence in full remains a question: Trump has hinted more than once that he might consider pardoning some of his former associates.

Regardless, the bigger debate over disparities between the rich and poor in the U.S. criminal justice system will remain.

In some states, lawmakers have begun to roll back harsh sentencing laws enacted during the height of the war on drugs in the 1970s and ’80s. But lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent crimes remain a major reason why the U.S. incarcerates so much more of its population than most other countries.

Researchers at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which advocates a less punitive approach to criminal justice, estimated in 2016 that of the 1.46 million people behind bars in the U.S., nearly 4 in 10 were imprisoned with no public safety rationale.

Even though state courts and state prisons, not the federal system, handle most criminal cases, the federal government sets a tone.

The coming presidential election will provide a forum for debating the future of mass incarceration in the U.S. One way to frame that debate would be whether Manafort’s sentence should be a model or remain an outlier

WINNOWING THE DEMOCRATIC FIELD

The first debates won’t take place for months, and the first voting remains nearly a year away, but already, the huge list of Democratic presidential candidates has started to shrink

Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio made the most news with his decision not to run. As Janet Hook and Evan Halper wrote, his backers saw him as someone who could appeal to the party’s activist left because of his long pro-labor record while still attracting votes from more moderate, white voters in the Midwest.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who bowed out earlier this week, had much less of an obvious base: He’s out of sync with the economic populism of the party’s base, and no one thinks Democrats will have trouble carrying New York.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkely, who also decided against running, had even less of a clear path forward.

One candidate with a clear lane to himself is Julian Castro. As Michael Finnegan wrote, the former U.S. Housing secretary has made much of being the first serious Latino candidate. So far, however, that’s not provided enough of a boost to get him into the top tier of candidates.

This week’s culling of the field doesn’t mean the list of candidates has entirely stopped growing, of course.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper launched his bid, touting his executive experience. He’s the first of several current or former governors likely to get into a race dominated so far by senators, as Eli Stokols wrote.

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And over the entire field looms the shadow of former Vice President Joe Biden, who seems to be inching ever closer to a formal announcement. People close to Biden say that could happen later this month. Others say maybe next month. Biden has been down this road before and likes to make decisions on his own schedule.

Doyle McManus took a look at some of the early narratives in the 2020 race.

DIVISION OVER CHARTER SCHOOLS

Charter schools have a long history of dividing Democrats. As Evan Halper wrote, that issue could shadow some presidential hopefuls.

Among the current candidates, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has the closest association with the charter movement. As mayor of Newark, he actively promoted charters. That history now could pose a problem for him with teacher unions.

IMPEACHMENT BY ANY OTHER NAME

House Democrats sent document demands to more than 80 Trump aides, friends and associates this week. As Megerian wrote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and her lieutenants have avoided using the word “impeachment,” but the new Judiciary Committee inquiry would lay the groundwork.

The strategy for Democrats is to keep up a steady flow of hearings into alleged malfeasance by Trump and his aides. They hope that will build public support for defeating Trump in 2020.

Democratic leaders want to avoid an impeachment that would appear partisan, like the Republican effort against President Clinton. But if their hearings generate widespread support in the country for removing Trump before the end of his term, the proceedings could also easily switch onto an impeachment path.

Meanwhile, as Noah Bierman and Megerian wrote, the White House has started to prepare for Mueller’s final report — whatever it says and whenever it comes.

The White House counsel’s office has made 17 new hires as a chronically understaffed administration has started to gear up for the onslaught ahead.

Trump did get one piece of good news in court this week, as U.S. District Judge S. James Otero in Los Angeles dismissed Stormy Daniels’ lawsuit seeking to void the nondisclosure agreement she had signed regarding her story of a sexual encounter with Trump. Trump had already agreed not to enforce the agreement, so the adult film actress had already “received exactly what she wanted,” the judge said.

Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti, continues to have his own problems in court, Michael Finnegan reported. His longtime law firm filed for bankruptcy protection again as one of its major creditors alleged “shenanigans” in his payment of debts.

TRYING TO STAY ON MESSAGE

Both parties had problems keeping to their preferred talking points this week.

The Democrats wanted to focus on a bill being voted on in the House that would significantly change the U.S. electoral system. The bill, HR 1, would make voter registration automatic, limit gerrymandering of congressional districts, and replace provisions of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court rolled back in 2013.

Instead, the House spent much of the week enmeshed in controversy over remarks by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) that many saw as anti-Semitic.

The House passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, as well as anti-Muslim acts, but only after days of internal debate over whether to single out anti-Jewish rhetoric. In the end, all Democrats, including Omar, voted for the resolution, but some complained it had been watered down.

Twenty-three Republicans voted against the resolution. Some said the condemnation of anti-Semitism wasn’t strong enough. Others, however, said they voted no because the resolution didn’t include statements to support white Christians.

On the other side, as Stokols wrote, Trump had his own message problems.

The president has suffered a series of setbacks in recent weeks on the border wall, trade policy and North Korea. The White House response has been to try to maintain the illusion of progress, even as the reality has soured.

WRAPPING UP THE WEEK

Secretaries of State traditionally avoid partisan politics. But Michael Pompeo has bent that practice considerably, as Tracy Wilkinson wrote. The secretary took some time from international negotiations to try a little diplomacy on Iowa farmers upset about the administration’s trade war with China.

The U.S. also moved this week to allow Americans to bring lawsuits against Cuba over seized property, a change from previous policy, as Wilkinson wrote.

And, finally, Molly O’Toole explained the reality behind the latest numbers on illegal border crossings. The number hit a decade-long high point in February, but are still quite low overall.

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LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

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