Editor’s Note: Elie Honig, a former federal and state prosecutor, is a CNN legal analyst and a Rutgers University scholar. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Judge T.S. Ellis sentenced former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort to 47 months in prison on Thursday. Simply put, Judge Ellis’s sentence is an injustice. It fails to adequately punish Manafort for committing a series of deliberate crimes over many years, and it sends terrible messages to the public about our criminal justice system.
Prosecutors calculated a sentencing guidelines range of 235 months (19 years and seven months) to 293 months (24 years and five months). These guidelines are important, and judges must consider them, but they are not binding; judges may sentence within, above or below the guidelines at their discretion. Given Manafort’s age, health, lack of prior convictions, and nonviolent offenses, I expected Judge Ellis to sentence Manafort below the guidelines range, but not nearly so far below as 47 months (just under four years).
Today’s sentence sends a corrosive two-pronged message to the American public. First, Manafort openly flouted the criminal justice system at every step and still got an enormous break. Following his arrest, Manafort got caught trying to tamper with witnesses, which caused Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, DC, to revoke his bail and send him to jail to await trial. He went to trial in the Eastern District of Virginia, where he denied culpability but was found guilty by a jury on eight counts. He then pleaded guilty to even more crimes and purported to try to cooperate with Mueller, but instead told more lies to Mueller and the FBI. Even today at sentencing, the judge found that Manafort did not accept responsibility.
Second, as Mueller noted in his sentencing memo, Manafort committed crimes repeatedly, deliberately, and over many years, stealing millions of dollars from the US government to support his absurdly lavish lifestyle (everybody remembers the ostrich coat). Yet Manafort received about the same sentence that I’ve countless times seen given to a typical low-level, nonviolent, first time drug offender in the federal system. Manafort’s sentence forces us to ask whether Judge Ellis gave him a break – perhaps not intentionally or consciously – because of his age, race, socioeconomic standing and quasi-celebrity profile. It is not a comfortable question to ask, but it is unavoidable.
Before Manafort starts counting down the days until his release – which, given the standard 15% reduction for good behavior in prison and deducting the approximately nine months Manafort already has served, could happen in 2022 – two important hurdles remain.
First, Mueller’s team might choose to appeal today’s sentence. It is rare for prosecutors to appeal a sentence, and even more rare for them to win, but the sentence here fell more than 15 years below the bottom of the guidelines range.
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Second, Manafort faces another sentencing next week in federal court in Washington, in front of Judge Berman Jackson. He could end up with a maximum sentence of ten years in that proceeding, which Berman Jackson might choose to run concurrent to (at the same time as) or consecutive to (on top of) the 47 months sentence in Virginia.
Either way, I suspect Judge Berman Jackson will add some time to Manafort’s sentence, but not enough to fully remedy today’s injustice.