Why Manafort’s 47-month jail sentence makes sense

Pictured above is the Court Building for the Eastern District of Virginia. In this federal court, Paul Manafort was sentenced to 47 months in prison for his various forms of fraud. Judge T.S. Ellis III sentenced Manafort for far less time than was suggested by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Courtesy of United States District Court Eastern District of Virginia

On March 7, 2019, Judge T.S. Ellis III sentenced Paul Manafort to 47 months in prison for tax and bank fraud. There are a few different ways to look at that 47-month sentence.

The first is to consider the maximum possible sentence for Manafort’s eight convictions. Theoretically, Judge Ellis could have sentenced Manafort 80 years in prison for his crimes (CNN, “Paul Manafort Found Guilty On 8 Counts,” 08.22.2018). Viewed in this light, 47 months seems a ludicrous amount of time for him to actually serve. That being said, using the maximum sentence as a benchmark for the actual sentence is misguided at best. For one thing, the maximum sentence is heavily dependent on how many counts a person is charged with, a number that is entirely at the discretion of the prosecutor, not the judge who will be giving the sentence. Believe it or not, the actual number of convictions has little effect on the actual sentence. A long maximum sentence also implies that all the sentences will run consecutively rather than concurrently, which rarely happens in cases where the defendant has competent counsel.

A better, more accurate way to examine the 47 months is with respect to the federal sentencing guidelines for the case. These guidelines were originally established in 1984 to make the sentences that federal judges handed down consistent, no matter where they were in the country. In fact, judges were required to adhere to the sentence mandated by the guidelines up until 2005 when the Supreme Court ruled that this law violated the Sixth Amendment’s right to a jury trial (Scotusblog, “Opinion Analysis: Plain Sentencing Guidelines Errors Ordinarily Justify Relief,” 06.19.2018). Since then, the guidelines have been just that: guidelines. They serve only as an advisory for what judges should consider.

The guidelines are, to say the least, incredibly complicated. Former federal prosecutor Ken White once compared them to filling out a tax return for a moderately sized corporation. Within the guidelines are dozens of sentencing upgrades—like hate-crime statutes—as well as sentencing downgrades for mitigating factors such as contriteness and acceptance of responsibility. With that in mind, the sentencing guidelines’ recommended sentence for Manafort’s case was a range of 19 to 24 years. How did Manafort’s sentence go from a recommended minimum of 19 years down to just over four?

This all comes down to the fact that the guidelines aren’t mandatory. Judges have a very broad discretion in what sentences they choose for criminals. Judge Ellis in particular has a history of departing from the sentencing guidelines, usually downward. In 2009, William Jefferson was given the longest sentence of any congressperson for corruption when he was sentenced to 13 years in prison. That 13-year sentence was significantly lower than the 27- to 33-year range recommended by the guidelines. The judge on that case? T.S. Ellis III (The Washington Post, “Ex-Rep. Jefferson (D-La.) gets 13 years in freezer cash case,” 11.14.2009).

If you look around, you will see statements like, “In July 2018, [Ellis] made national headlines when sentencing 37-year-old Frederick Turner to prison for 40 years for dealing methamphetamines,” which is true (The Washington Post, “Judge Laments 40 Year Sentence For Meth Dealer As Excessive,” 07.02.2018). Judge Ellis did sentence Frederick Turner to 40 years. What is not true is that Ellis had any say in the matter. Drug crime, particularly when it involves firearms, almost always has a mandatory minimum attached to it. Unlike federal sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimums are non-negotiable. If the mandatory minimum is 40 years, as it was for Turner, then the judge has no choice but to impose a sentence of at least 40 years.

On the other hand, white-collar crime very rarely has mandatory minimums. The judicial branch is not responsible for this discrepancy. Rather, it is a result of the legislative branch trying to assert its value system. Drugs and guns: bad; money laundering: more iffy. Judge Ellis has actually been one of the most vocal opponents of mandatory minimums, commenting, “This situation presents me with something I have no discretion to change and the only thing I can do is express my displeasure.” He even went so far as to appoint additional pro bono counsel for a criminal whom he viewed as receiving far too severe a sentence (Politco, “Manafort Judge Emerges As Skeptic Of Long Mandatory Minimum Sentences,” 07.06.2018).

It should also be noted that Judge Ellis was the first of two judges who had to sentence Paul Manafort. The second, Judge Amy Berman Jackson, imposed an additional 43 months to Manafort’s sentence. Therefore, the sentence is 47 months, nine of which he had already served, as well as a 73-month sentence with 30 of those months concurrently. With a 15 percent reduction for good behavior he would only have to serve 85 percent of his sentence, meaning he would be in prison for at least 67.5 more months. Manafort has also been indicted in state court, so his legal troubles are not over yet.

This brings me to the last way to look at Judge Ellis’ 47-month sentence. You will spend approximately 32 months at Vassar in your life. If you were to go to jail instead, everybody you know—friends, acquaintances, classmates, romantic partners—you would never have met. Birthdays and chances to watch family members grow up would all disappear. Forty-seven months is a long time. Not only that, if you feel angered by Manafort’s relatively short sentence, don’t forget that you’re still young with a life expectancy of approximately 60 years, at least according to data from the U.S. Social Security Administration. Manafort has approximately 14 years left. A prison sentence of 67.5 months is 41 percent of his remaining life (U.S. Social Security Administration, “Actuarial Life Table,” 2015).

I’m not saying we should all weep for Manafort and his ostrich-jacketed 70-year-old body. I’m not saying that white-collar crime isn’t under-punished. What I am saying is that maybe Paul Manafort’s sentence isn’t too low, and that we shouldn’t pillory a judge for being lenient. Maybe we should consider that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the developed world, and that maybe our severe sentencing has something to do with that. Maybe, just maybe, 47 months is enough.

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