Leniency Shown to Paul Manafort Should Be the Norm for Everyone


By Udi Ofer

Last week, Americans got a front row seat to the two systems of justice we have in America, one reserved for rich white men and the other for communities of color. Unfortunately, though, many people may have drawn the wrong lessons from these examples.

On Thursday, Paul Manafort, a white man, got a 47-month sentence for massive tax and bank fraud, far less than the 24 years recommended by prosecutors. People were outraged, rightfully pointing out that every day in America, Black people face harsher sentences for less serious offenses. Many even called for Manafort to receive more prison time as a way to address this inequity.

One day later, another high profile case hit the news, just in time to pour salt on the Manafort-sentencing wound. Jussie Smollett, a Black man, got indicted on 16 felonies for lying to the police, meaning that he could face up to 64 years in prison if convicted.

So here in plain sight was the double standard so many of us decry. A rich white man gets leniency, while a Black man, an actor notwithstanding, gets the book thrown at him.

The outrage over these two systems of justice is entirely justified. There is systemic racism in our nation’s criminal legal system, where Black people are incarcerated at six times and Latinos at threes time the rate of non-Latino whites. One in three young Black men can expect to serve time in prison if current trends continue. To put this in context, the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its Black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.

These disparities are not explained by offenses committed, but are a product of the extraordinary discretion afforded to the police, prosecutors, and judges. Manafort receiving a lenient sentence while Smollett faces harsh treatment exemplifies the discretion afforded to law enforcement and the judicial system. In one, a judge exercised discretion to show leniency, while in the other, a prosecutor exercised discretion to seek harsh punishment.

But the solution to this inequity is not harsher sentences for people like Paul Manafort. If we want to end our nation’s addiction to mass incarceration, then we must wean ourselves off long prison sentences as a default solution to punishing crime. To end mass incarceration, in other words, the criminal legal system should start treating everyone the way it currently treats rich white men.

Sentences should go down, and prosecutors should stop overcharging. We must end the status quo, which assumes that incarceration is the solution to lying to the police or that a four-year prison sentence for fraud is somehow light punishment.

In response to the Manafort sentencing, presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar tweeted, “Crimes committed in an office building should be treated as seriously as crimes committed on a street corner.”

She is right that both should be treated the same, but if she meant that the solution is longer sentences for people like Manafort, then she is wrong. The solution is to lower sentences, and to treat all people, including people arrested on the “street corner,” with less prison and more alternatives to incarceration.

Udi Ofer is Deputy National Political Director and Director of Campaign for Smart Justice, ACLU

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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14 thoughts on “Leniency Shown to Paul Manafort Should Be the Norm for Everyone”

  1. Eric Gelber

    Disagree. First, it’s not accurate to say “in one, a judge exercised discretion to show leniency, while in the other, a prosecutor exercised discretion to seek harsh punishment.” In fact, in both instances, the prosecutor sought harsh punishment. But in Manafort’s case, a conservative judge imposed an absurdly light sentence for “massive tax and bank fraud” on the dubious ground that Manafort had otherwise led a blameless life. If we were to apply the Manafort standard to  Smollett, a proportionate punishment would be to give Smollett an Emmy.

  2. John Hobbs

    I believe that this is the time for an object lesson. I think that leniency is fine for run of the mill crime, but let’s be honest here. These jackals stole our democracy. They are no less than traitors and should pay the highest price.

    1. Bill Marshall

      The greater they are, the harder they should fall?

      I don’t disagree, but I have to recognize that in believing that, I am not egalitarian…  I accept that I have what some might call an “inherent bias”… I own that… to those who have received in plenty, much is expected… the danger is in the converse… that we don’t expect much from those who have received little… so, many don’t try to help lift them “up” (or, better, help them lift themselves up), raise their expectations and means…

      See how many folk treat the homeless, the poor, those with cognitive/mental health challenges, etc.

      The Manafort result ‘enables’ the bullies, the “I’m special so I can make my own rules, without consequences…” crowd.  Bad call by the judge.


  3. Alan Miller

    These are not comparable crimes, nor are they in the same jurisdiction.  You can’t attempt to compare them and then say:  ‘this guy is white, this guy is black’  SEE SEE!   I’ll Leave Manafort out of it.  

    Jussie Smollett committed a very serious crime.  Reporting a false crime takes resources from solving real crimes — which leaves criminals on the street to commit more crimes against citizens.  Not only that, but Jussie Smollett shat upon any and all persons who are the group x victim of real crimes of a similar vein, as have all persons who have faked attacks against any group x by ‘conservatives’.  Ever notice how these fake perps are usually wearing a MAGA hat?  It’s like the criminal crime fakers don’t read the papers and realize that’s been done, and failed.

    It reminds me of the woman who several years ago faked that she was raped in the Death Star on campus.  Used up campus resources and then she was charged with faking the crime.  That is not only a serious crime, but all such fake allegations lead to doubt regarding stories from real victims of rape.  This woman, and Jesse Smollett, are criminally selfish narcissists who should be prosecuted fully, and not given a pass.  They pooped upon the very people of groups they are members of and massively disrespected and made life harder for victims through their own crimes.

    But I can’t say it half as well as Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson:

    This announcement today recognizes that “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.

    I’m left hanging my head and asking why. Why would anyone, especially an African American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile? How can an individual who’s been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in this city in the face by making these false claims?

    Bogus police reports cause real harm. They do harm to every legitimate victim who is in need of support by police and investigators, as well as the citizens of this city.

    1. Craig Ross

      Disagree Alan.  While the crimes are different – you can still look at sentencing guidelines and see which one ends up over-sentenced versus under-sentenced and the trend holds.

      1. Alan Miller

        Sure.  As crimes.  You can’t then bring race into it.  Yes, corporate criminals, get away with horrendous crimes and that needs to change.  And they are usually white.  Crime fakers aren’t from any particular group, and just because Jussie Smollett is from group x and group y doesn’t give him a pass on his crimes.

  4. Jim Hoch

    “A hate crime (also known as a bias-motivated crime or bias crime) is a prejudice-motivated crime which occurs when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her membership (or perceived membership) in a certain social group or race.”

    With the Pussie Smollett case the “victim” would be the people he falsely accused of attacking him because of their race and membership in a “certain social group”. Seems like a classic hate crime to me.

    1. Alan Miller

      With the Pussie Smollett case the “victim” would be the people he falsely accused of attacking him because of their race and membership in a “certain social group”.

      You mean “white people with red hats who don’t actually exist” ???

      1. Jim Hoch

        Exactly, his crime was specifically intended to harm members of a certain race and social group. He chose a group that was marginalized on social media and tried to promote his own interests by harming them.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Interesting use of the term “social group”… VFW is a social group… DAR is a social group… etc.

          All by conscious choice… yet the LGBT etc. folk do not see their sexuality as a ‘choice’… it’s who they are… not a “social group”… nor do the races, the blind, deaf, etc. consider themselves as a ‘social group’… it’s who they are. Their ‘choice’ is to acknowledge who they are, and to affirm their right to be accepted for who they are, just like almost everyone deserves that…

          “inherent bias”?  inherent waffling? inherent PC?

          “Social group”?  Really?

        2. Jim Hoch

          From Cliffnotes

          “A social group is a collection of people who interact with each other and share similar characteristics and a sense of unity. A social category is a collection of people who do not interact but who share similar characteristics.”

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