© 2016 by Charles D. Jones

What Can We Learn from Paul Manafort?

April 22, 2019

Paul Manafort, former campaign manager for President Trump, was recently sentenced by a federal judge in Virginia to 47 months. Then another federal judge in D.C. added another 43 months, for a smooth 90 (7.5 years). Democrats, who generally favor shorter sentences, were oddly outraged that Manafort's combined sentences were way too short. Many of them scoffed when he appeared at his sentencing hearing in a wheel chair. I would invite them to try to consider what it was like for someone his age to spend several months in solitary confinement, a place they'll hopefully never experience. If Manafort isn't pardoned by President Trump and lives long enough to complete his sentence, he will find a different world when released. He will have missed births, weddings, and funerals. He will be a convicted felon, unable to vote or possess a firearm. Worse yet, for someone who was respected and considered a big deal, he'll be neither.

 

Under federal law found at Title 18 U.S.C. Section 3553, "the court shall impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary." When I look at his cases, Manafort's 90 month sentence seems sufficient, but not greater than necessary, for his guilty plea to tax evasion and foreign influence peddling, both of which are serious crimes. The real problem is not with Manafort's sentence, its that other sentences are too long.

 

In drug cases, first time offenders get longer sentences all the time. Only 5 grams of methamphetamine, often an amount sold by users simply to pay for their addictions, carries a 5 year mandatory minimum. I'm certainly not condoning selling illegal drugs to addicts, but what purpose is served here by a 5 year mandatory minimum sentence? Deterrence? Not hardly. There's no chance the small time meth addict/dealer has any idea he/she is looking at a 5 year sentence, so no potential criminal activity is deterred. The mandatory sentence here is merely punitive, stupid, or both. 

 

A recent report by the Bremman Center for Justice found that 40% of the US prison population is incarcerated without a compelling public safety purpose. I'll paraphrase former US Attorney General Loretta Lynch who said that we should imprison those we truly fear, not those who merely make us mad. Unfortunately, we do both in this country. She didn't say this, but I also wonder if many white Americans, including white law makers, prosecutors and judges, are more afraid of people of color. It would be difficult for some to admit it, but there has to be a reason for the racial bias in sentencing. (Hint: white people get less time...unless you're OJ, who was an anomaly.)

 

Speaking of bias, you might say I have a bias against long sentences because I'm in prison. That's valid, as I've never known anyone who's been in prison who thinks long sentences serve a legitimate purpose. However, I have no problem with my sentence. It was longer than I expected and certainly longer than I wanted, but it is what it is. I can deal with it. But it's a sad reality that we over punish too many in this country. When we do that, we punish not just criminals, but families, employers, victims, everyone. The financial costs are obvious, but there are other insidious costs. 

 

If we can lock up small time drug dealers with no prior criminal history, why not our political enemies? Why not Hillary or Trump? We all know people who, depending upon their leanings, get giddy with the mere mention of one of them doing some time, the longer the better. Since Hillary is now irrelevant, and Trump is yet unindicted, Manafort will have to do for now. Deep inside, we know we should be better than that. But somehow over the last generation, we've convinced ourselves that incarceration, instead of being the last option, is the default solution to many of our social problems. That's a cruel and insane hoax.

 

I'm not so naive to think that we're a Christian nation, whatever that is. But if we were, wouldn't our criminal justice system reflect Christian values? I'm not asking for a Christian caliphate, but there are some uniquely Christian values that would serve us well. These principals worked well in South Africa with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when Desmond Tutu and others stressed redemption over retribution, rehabilitation over punishment. That could work in America for small time drug dealers and even rich republicans. It could actually help heal our nation.

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