The Paul Manafort sentence – justice served?

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A courtroom sketch depicts Paul Manafort in federal court in Virginia on Thursday, March 7, 2019.

William J. Hennessy Jr.

Last Updated Mar 13, 2019 9:00 PM EDT

On Thursday former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was sentenced to 47 months in prison on charges of bank fraud, filing false tax returns to hide tens of millions of dollars in income, and failure to report foreign assets.

Last year, Crystal Mason, a Texas woman who'd asked for and voted with a provisional ballot in November 2016 while on probation (without knowing she wasn't allowed to), was sentenced to five years in prison.

In the wake of the Manafort sentencing decision, Scott Hechinger, senior staff attorney and director of policy at Brooklyn Defender Services (an organization that provides legal representation to nearly 35,000 people each year who are too poor to afford an attorney), was one of many who took to Twitter to point out some of the disparities that exist in America's courts.

"For context on Manafort's 47 months in prison, my client yesterday was offered 36-72 months in prison for stealing $100 worth of quarters from a residential laundry room," Hechinger tweeted.

"To be clear: I'm not advocating here or anywhere for worse treatment for all. Just wish my clients received same treatment as the privileged few," he said.

Sentencing guidelines for federal offenses are determined by the United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency of the judicial branch that was established via the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. Its manual lists ranges of periods of incarceration and/or probation for all levels of offense, to be adjusted according to the parameters of the case, the defendant's criminal history, his or her cooperation with authorities, etc.

While judges base their decisions on the established range of sentencing, they generally have freedom to go outside the guidelines, although mandatory minimum laws proscribe that defendants found guilty of certain crimes, or who are repeat offenders, must face a minimum incarceration set by statute regardless of any mitigating factors.

In the case of the Manafort decision, Judge T.S. Ellis III, in the Eastern District of Virginia, expressed criticism of the sentencing range which officials had determined was warranted by the guidelines, of 19 to 24 years. Manafort's attorneys requested a sentence lower than the guidelines, stating that their client was a "first-time offender."

It was noteworthy that, when Manafort spoke in court prior to the sentence being read, he failed to apologize or express remorse. Judge Ellis expressed surprise at that, but then surprised the court himself with a sentence that was far below the legally called-for minimum. Taking into account time Manafort has already served in jail awaiting and during trial, his actual sentence may be just above three years.

It's not unheard of, though, for a white collar criminal to receive a decidedly lower sentence, regardless of what the guidelines say. In May 2018, sentencing guidelines for a banker found guilty of aiding a multi-billion-dollar money laundering scheme involving Iranian oil proceeds, in violation of sanctions against Tehran, called for 105 years; prosecutors argued for 20 years. The judge in that case sentenced Mehmet Hakan Atilla to 32 months.

According to The New York Times, in fiscal year 2017 43 percent of those convicted of fraud received sentences below the guidelines, although many were being rewarded for cooperating with authorities. In contrast, Manafort was found to have lied to prosecutors.

"I think it is stunning," CBS News legal analyst Rikki Klieman told "CBS This Morning." "I think that it's one thing to depart down from guidelines … but it's another thing to basically throw the guidelines out the window."

Questions raised about Paul Manafort's 4-year prison sentence for fraud

Both defendants and prosecutors may appeal a sentence under certain conditions.

Manafort, meanwhile, faces another sentencing hearing this week, at a Washington, D.C., court, in a case brought by special counsel Robert Mueller in which he plead guilty to one count each of conspiracy against the United States (involving money laundering, tax fraud, violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and lying to investigators) and conspiracy to obstruct justice (including witness tampering while on pre-trial release). Together they bring a maximum sentence of ten years, which Judge Amy Berman Jackson will decide whether they are to be served concurrently or consecutively.

In his initial plea agreement, Manafort had also acknowledged guilt on the ten charges in the Virginia case on which the jury had hung 11-1, and agreed to cooperate with the special counsel's office. Later, when he was judged to have subsequently lied to prosecutors about such topics as sharing Trump campaign polling data with his associate Konstantin Kilimnik (a political operative with ties to Russian intelligence), the judge revoked his cooperation agreement.

If Judge Jackson goes for the maximum sentence to be served consecutively, Manafort will be in prison until he is 83 years old. 

       
UPDATE: On Wednesday, March 13, Judge Jackson sentenced Manafort to 73 months, 30 months of which is to be served concurrently with his Virginia sentence, meaning he will spend approximately 7.5 years in prison. Shortly after, new charges were filed in New York City, when an indictment against the former Trump campaign chairman was unsealed. State criminal charges include residential mortgage fraud, falsifying business records, and conspiracy. (A presidential pardon or commutation cannot be handed down on stage charges.)  

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.