Cory Booker, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, channeled Democrats’ fury at the unexpectedly light sentence for Paul Manafort, which the senator from New Jersey learned of the day he released a new sentencing plan and as he was just about to appear on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Manafort’s sentence was less than a quarter of what prosecutors had recommended, a lenience that Booker said probably wouldn’t be offered to a drug offender or a minority offender. There’s plenty of data to back Booker up.
“This news came out about Paul Manafort, and I’m really ticked off about this,” said an agitated Booker, who then gave an informed speech on inequality.
“One of my friends says we have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” he said on Colbert’s show. “And there are people from neighborhoods like mine in America” – Booker lives in an inner city, Newark – “who get convictions for doing things that two of the last three presidents admitted to doing”: smoking marijuana.
He went on: “We are a nation right now that churns into our criminal justice system the most vulnerable people. You can tell a lot about a country by who they incarcerate. So in Russia, they incarcerate political opposition. In Turkey, they’re actually incarcerating the media – be careful when you travel there, sir. But in our country, we prey upon the most vulnerable citizens in our nation. Poor folks. Mentally ill folks. Addicted folks. And overwhelmingly black and brown folks.”
Booker said he was not surprised, however, at Manafort’s sentence.
“This criminal justice system can’t surprise me anymore,” he told Colbert.
One way to look at the Manafort situation is that President Donald Trump’s former 2016 campaign chairman is headed to jail for nearly four years.
Another way to look at it is that a friend of the President got an extremely light sentence after defrauding banks and the government and evading taxes on tens of millions of dollars he made working for foreign politicians accused of their own election tampering, suspected of attempted assassination and tied to Russia.
Prosecutors wanted between 19 and 25 years.
A third way to look at it is that a wealthy white man got less time than expected for a white-collar crime.
There’s plenty of data that a not-wealthy American convicted of a not-white-collar crime would have gotten a much harsher sentence.
There’s also data that the same judge would give a wealthy African-American convicted of a white-collar crime a much harsher sentence.
That’s what the federal judge, T.S. Ellis, who sentenced Manafort, did in 2009 when he sentenced former Rep. William Jefferson to 13 years for bribery.
Granted, at the time of his crimes, the Louisiana Democrat was an elected official. Ellis made clear that his sentence for Manafort was not for crimes committed during his work for the man he was trying to make US president. It was during Manafort’s time working for powerful foreigners.
The US federal prison population is made up – 46% – of people convicted of drug offenses, the most, by far, of any type of offense.
The median sentence for drug trafficking was 55 months, based on data from more than 19,000 cases in 2017, according to the US Sentencing Commission. The median sentence for tax crimes was 10 months; for money laundering it was 18 months.
No one can deny that the US treats one type of offender differently from another. That’s why Congress and Trump acted last year to address some of this inequality with the First Step Act, a rare moment of bipartisan social reform during the Trump administration.
But it was an incremental effort. Booker, who cosponsored the First Step Act, is proposing the Next Step Act as part of his presidential campaign. It would change sentencing for drug offenders, put restrictions on when employers can ask about criminal history and more. Manafort, who has already spent nine months in jail and still faces sentencing for other crimes, likely didn’t have to fill out a formal application when he got work in Ukraine that paid him millions.
And there’s some chance that, like many in his situation, he won’t have to serve his entire sentence, which is less than a presidential term. The White House hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a pardon.