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When Justice is Bought, It's Unequal

Updated: Jul 2, 2019

When former Trump Campaign manager and convicted felon Paul Manafort was sentenced last week to just 47 months in prison for tax evasion and bank fraud, there was shock and outrage that the recommended 19 to 24 year sentence requested by Special Prosecutor Robert Muller’s team was ignored in favor of a sentence just shy of four years.

Despite the seriousness of Manafort’s crimes and the post-conviction obstruction charges, the man was lauded by Judge T.S. Ellis as a man who had lived a mostly “blameless life.” It’s hard not to see the inequity in Manafort’s sentencing and treatment compared with that of the typical black or poor defendant.

At least one Congresswoman agrees that the American criminal justice system is rife with disparities based on race and/or economic status. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, tweeted: “Paul Manafort getting such little jail time for such serious crimes lays out for the world how it's almost impossible for rich people to go to jail for the same amount of time as someone who is lower income."

She’s right.

Others also have spoken out against the inherent inequity. Scott Hechinger, a senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Public Defender noted how many of his clients, mostly minorities, received much harsher sentences for far less serious crimes. He tweeted: “For context on Manafort’s 47 months in prison, my client yesterday was offered 36-72 months in prison for stealing $100 worth of quarters from a residential laundry room.”

He went on to add that a Black woman in Texas who voted in the 2016 election without knowing that she was eligible because she was on probation received a 5-year prison sentence.

Said Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), "The criminal justice system as evidenced by that judgement is broken in America. Manafort gets off with a 47 month sentence while a young black man in Mississippi who had weed run his car got a sentence of 12 years."

A former prosecutor, Harris said she always said that "people who commit white collar crimes should bring their toothbrush and be prepared to spend as much time in prison as anybody else. Everyone needs to be treated equally."

As the senator noted while campaigning in South Carolina Friday, the American criminal justice system is rife with examples of stiff sentences handed down to poor, black and brown people versus the lenient punishment doled out to wealthy whites.

For example:

  • Brock Turner, who is white, received 6 months in jail for raping a woman because the judge felt like a harsher sentence would ruin his life.

  • Brian Banks, who is black and was also a promising athlete in 2002 when he was convicted of raping a white woman, spent more than 6 years in prison before the woman recanted the story and he was released from jail.

Now consider this: Much of white America believes that Colin Kaepernick, who mounted a peaceful protest by kneeling during the national anthem to protest both police brutality and inequities in the American criminal justice system has no right whatsoever to protest. In their view, kneeling is unpatriotic and he should just shut up and play ball, particularly since he was at one time, paid very well to play football.

As a privileged athlete, the kind of crimes and sentences that Kaepernick is protesting wouldn’t likely affect him, opponents reason, so he should ignore it. But Kaepernick wasn’t satisfied to turn a blind eye to unequal treatment of black people at the hands of law enforcement and the American criminal justice system. I for one am glad he stood up.

Every day, we witness the justice system work for white, wealthy men and women and against black and poor people. It happens in arrests and sentencing and if we remain quiet about it, it is sure to continue. No defendant, no matter how rich or privileged, should escape full punishment for committing serious crimes while black and poor people have the book thrown at them for committing minor infractions.

Stacy Fitzgerald is a Washington, DC area Gen Xer whose obsessions include politics, traveling and food and wine ventures.

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