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Putting Paul Manafort's Prison Sentence Into Perspective


Manafort's sentence has generated a fair share of criticism. Former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade tells The New York Times that the 47-month sentence is, quote, "atrociously low." A public defender from Brooklyn named Scott Hechinger tweeted this - "for context, my client yesterday was offered 36 to 72 months in prison for stealing $100 worth of quarters from a residential laundry room," end quote.

Let's get more context from former federal prosecutor Paul Butler. He is with Georgetown University Law School, and he focuses on criminal justice and civil rights. Thanks so much for being with us.

PAUL BUTLER: Hey, Rachel. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: What do you make of the outrage over Manafort's sentence? Is it justified?

BUTLER: In thinking about what an appropriate sentence would be, it's important to appreciate the magnitude of Mr. Manafort's criminality. The Virginia jury found him guilty of eight felonies. He hid $55 million in 30 overseas bank accounts to avoid paying taxes. And he lied to banks to get even more money. This fraud continued over a period of 10 years.

MARTIN: So I hear you saying you think it's too low.

BUTLER: I do, in part, because the judge himself found that Mr. Manafort has not accepted responsibility for his crimes, which usually means the judge will not lower the sentence. In a statement to the court, Mr. Manafort talked about how difficult the prosecution and trial had been for him and his family. The impression Mr. Manafort gave was that he was the victim. And that attitude usually inspires judges to issue a tougher sentence. It's like judges are saying, well, Mr. Manafort, if you don't know, you're going to learn today that what you did was wrong.

But Mr. Judge Ellis's sentence - it almost seemed to endorse Mr. Manafort's own self-pity. Mr. Manafort seemed to blame other people for his criminality. And at the sentencing yesterday, Judge Ellis early on seemed critical of Robert Mueller for bringing this case because it's not directly related to the collusion investigation.

MARTIN: So you think that might've fed into his decision on this. But what do you make of the argument that Judge Ellis made, that these sentences, in general, are too high, that the sentences for these kinds of crimes are high for everyone?

BUTLER: Oh, that's true. But the purpose of the federal sentencing guidelines - they were passed in 1984 - is to make sentences uniform. Before the guidelines, there was a concern that one person might get one year in prison and another 10 years for the same crime. And the worry was that judges were being arbitrary or that racial bias was playing a role. And so now the guidelines consider many factors like the gravity of the offense and the defendant's criminality, whether he's remorseful and then provides the judge with a limited range.

So judges are allowed to depart, either more time or less time. But most judges don't depart. They follow them in most cases. And there was another case that Judge Ellis had. It involved mandatory minimum sentences. And in that case, it was a drug offense. The judge - the defendant was found guilty of a crime involving meth. The judge sentenced him to 40 years in prison. This man was not violent. He never, as far as we know, touched a gun. The judge said - in that case, he thought 40 years was too much for this kind of crime, but he didn't have a choice because of the law.

MARTIN: Well, we will see what happens. As Ryan Lucas indicated, there is another trial - another sentencing that Manafort will face. That could add even more prison time to his sentence. Georgetown University Law professor, former federal prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice, Paul Butler. Thanks for your time. We appreciate it.

BUTLER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.