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What Manafort’s light sentence says about criminal justice disparities

A federal judge in Virginia sentenced Paul Manafort to less than four years in prison for tax and bank fraud--far less than the roughly 20 years called for under federal guidelines. The sentence prompted outcry, with critics arguing Manafort’s punishment highlights disparities in our criminal justice system. Judy Woodruff talks to Kevin Sharp, a former federal judge, for an insider’s perspective.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have been reporting, President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was sentenced Thursday to less than four years in federal prison for tax and bank fraud. That is far less than the roughly 20 years he had faced under federal sentencing guidelines.

    The sentence delivered by a district judge in Alexandria, Virginia, sparked outrage on social media, with some advocates noting that the stark disparities in our criminal justice system.

    Former federal Judge Kevin Sharp is here with an insider's perspective.

    Kevin Sharp, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    We talk about sentencing guidelines. What are they, who sets them, and do judges have to abide by them?

  • Kevin Sharp:

    Well, thank you for having me.

    Sentencing guidelines came about in the late 1980s as a counter to what is believed to be too much disparity across the country and across jurisdictions on sentencing. And so these guidelines came about.

    It's — they're formed by a commission, presidential commission, lots of experts in the area. And they will assign numerical values to crimes. And then there are certain enhancements and mitigating factors that would adjust to get you to a range. At one time, those ranges were mandatory. But after the case of United States vs. Booker, the Supreme Court said they're not mandatory, but they're advisory.

    And so they become really the basis that every judge should work from to fashion a sentence.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But a judge is not required to abide by them. Is that correct?

  • Kevin Sharp:

    No, that's right. They're not required.

    But you are required to determine what the guideline range is, and then use that as your starting point when you fashion a sentence. And the sentences are supposed to be sufficient, but not more harsh than necessary, to comply with the purposes of why we sentence people and the goals that we're trying to accomplish.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, how far out of the norm was the sentence that was handed down by this federal district judge yesterday in Virginia for Paul Manafort for tax and bank fraud?

  • Kevin Sharp:

    I think, well, one of the things you need to focus on is that he's only being sentenced for the crimes that he was convicted of. And so you're right. You mentioned those as the tax fraud.

    But it was fairly out of the norm, I think. Now, I don't disagree that that guideline range, 20 years, is awfully high. And in most instances, I think that the guideline ranges are overly harsh.

    But that's why a judge has discretion, and you can move upward or downward from those ranges. But to come down to something right at four years was very odd and very surprising for me, and a bit disturbing, based on what I know and experience, about the disparity in sentencing between white-collar crimes and drug crimes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we know — what we were mentioning earlier is, there's been an outcry today on social media and beyond that, with many people saying that individuals who have committed far different crimes where no one — where there was no violence involved, no one was hurt.

    There was even an item by — written about by a public defender in New York City, saying a man stole $100 worth of coins out of a laundry and was and was to be sentenced for longer than what Paul Manafort received.

  • Kevin Sharp:

    Right. Now, I don't — I saw that as well. I'm not sure if that's accurate or not.

    But I know that that general feeling and what they're talking about happens. You had the individual down in Texas who voted when she should not have. It appears that it was inadvertent, and she gets five years.

    So there are two things going on. One is, was this sentence appropriate for Mr. Manafort? But then there's the flip side of that is, are these other sentences just entirely too harsh? And we need to not lose sight of what we're really talking about. And they are separate issues here.

    I think that the sentence for Mr. Manafort was unjust, in the sense that there should have been, for the crimes that he committed, a more harsh sentence. And I'm equally sure that had the individual not been wealthy or white, that we probably would have seen that sentence, and not because I'm saying anything about Judge Ellis, but I'm saying that's what the data would show.

    Sentences are just more harsh.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we should just point out, Kevin Sharp, that you — in stepping down from the federal bench, what, two years ago, a little over two years ago…

  • Kevin Sharp:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … made a statement about your — the way you read some of the sentencing guidelines. And you felt they were too harsh.

  • Kevin Sharp:

    Exactly, particularly with regard to nonviolent drug crimes.

    There were three individuals that had mandatory — were in my courtroom, convicted of drug crimes. I was required to give them mandatory life sentences. That, to me, was outrageous, and not at all in line with what sentencing should be about, particularly if we're looking for a sentence that is sufficient to punish for the crime that was committed.

    And we're not looking at those facts. We're finally starting to look at that. But I was very frustrated by what was going on and thought that there needed to be a better spotlight on that.

    I think some of the things that are happening with the FIRST STEP Act are moving us there. There's still a lot more that needs to be done.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Kevin Sharp:

    And so, in the one sense, I'm arguing sentences in general are too harsh, particularly for drug crimes, but individuals are who you sentence, right?

    So, if we look at the individual, and what this individual did — I'm back talking about Mr. Manafort — if you're looking at what he did and all the other factors that you take into account for sentencing, I think this was entirely too lenient for what happened.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All of this pointing to the fact that there's been a lot more focus, as you say, on sentencing. And we're going to continue to do that.

    Kevin Sharp, we thank you very much.

  • Kevin Sharp:

    Thank you.

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