The Leniency Shown to Paul Manafort Should Be the Norm for Everyone — Not Just Rich White Men

Last week, Americans got a front row seat to the two systems of justice we have in America, one reserved for rich white men and the other for communities of color. Unfortunately, though, many people may have drawn the wrong lessons from these examples.

On Thursday, Paul Manafort, a white man, got a 47-month sentence for massive tax and bank fraud, far less than the 24 years recommended by prosecutors. People were outraged, rightfully pointing out that every day in America, Black people face harsher sentences for less serious offenses. Many even called for Manafort to receive more prison time as a way to address this inequity.

One day later, another high profile case hit the news, just in time to pour salt on the Manafort-sentencing wound. Jussie Smollett, a Black man, got indicted on 16 felonies for lying to the police, meaning that he could face up to 64 years in prison if convicted.

So here in plain sight was the double standard so many of us decry. A rich white man gets leniency, while a Black man, an actor notwithstanding, gets the book thrown at him.

The outrage over these two systems of justice is entirely justified. There is systemic racism in our nation’s criminal legal system, where Black people are incarcerated at six times and Latinos at threes time the rate of non-Latino whites. One in three young Black men can expect to serve time in prison if current trends continue. To put this in context, the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its Black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.

These disparities are not explained by offenses committed, but are a product of the extraordinary discretion afforded to the police, prosecutors, and judges. Manafort receiving a lenient sentence while Smollett faces harsh treatment exemplifies the discretion afforded to law enforcement and the judicial system. In one, a judge exercised discretion to show leniency, while in the other, a prosecutor exercised discretion to seek harsh punishment.

But the solution to this inequity is not harsher sentences for people like Paul Manafort. If we want to end our nation’s addiction to mass incarceration, then we must wean ourselves off long prison sentences as a default solution to punishing crime. To end mass incarceration, in other words, the criminal legal system should start treating everyone the way it currently treats rich white men.

Sentences should go down, and prosecutors should stop overcharging. We must end the status quo, which assumes that incarceration is the solution to lying to the police or that a four-year prison sentence for fraud is somehow light punishment.

In response to the Manafort sentencing, presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar tweeted, “Crimes committed in an office building should be treated as seriously as crimes committed on a street corner.”

She is right that both should be treated the same, but if she meant that the solution is longer sentences for people like Manafort, then she is wrong. The solution is to lower sentences, and to treat all people, including people arrested on the “street corner,” with less prison and more alternatives to incarceration.

View comments (14)
Read the Terms of Use


So how do we punish murders and other violent criminals. Send them home without dinners.
How about a white collar criminals who criminal acts destroyed the lives of thousands.
The answer is the same long sentences for people based on the crime they committed. Not on their wealth.
I do not want violent criminals getting off with light sentences.
Though the one good thing about this article, it established the stance of the ACLU. When they usually talk about criminals getting off with light sentences, they pretend that they are only talking about non-violent criminals. This article established they want all criminals to get off with light sentences, regardless of their crime.


Felony crimes by the Bush DOJ attorneys likely destroyed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. Not one top Bush official has even been indicted. Unlike poor people, many without college education, the Bush torture attorneys attended the best law schools and chose to commit premeditated felonies knowing exactly what they were doing. Mueller should indict them first.


here is a radical idea, indict them all.
but do not give lesser sentences to violent criminals, something that the ACLU advocates because the ACLU wants criminals to go free and to heck with the victims of crime.


The profit motive needs to be removed from the equation and redirected. 100% of fines, asset forfeiture, etc. should go directly back the zip codes where the poor people, that were convicted, reside. Funds could go to education, hiring “walking” beat-cops [community policing], funding public defenders, daycare/after school activities and good jobs in economically distressed zip codes. Ending private prisons would help also. There should be jury trials about 90% of the time and greatly limiting/regulating abusive plea bargain practices. Cases like “Terry v. Ohio” 1968, that destroyed the 4th Amendment needs correcting by the U.S. Supreme Court. Today the American Justice System does the opposite.


No where does the decision reflect the amount of property, possessions, and account amounts that were confiscated by law enforcement as ill-gotten gains by which Manafort enriched himself while committing felonies. At some point, doesn't treason to the United States of America call for the death penalty? I don't know about measuring this sentencing against some data set related to racial injustices -- and prosecutions of similar penalties, since this just becomes more piling on. I wonder if more sentencing will pile on more time too?


The problem is that justice in our country and most other countries is not color blind. Sit in a DUI courtroom and see how white people are given alternative sentences in greater numbers than people of color.


This article is ridiculous. Because our prisons are crowded, we should give rich white men lesser sentences?

Wealthy people serve less time for crime. EVERY SINGLE TIME. There is either a single, equitable justice system or none at all. Really sick and tired of these scum bags destroying lives and/or institutions and getting slapped on the wrist by judges who are in the tank.


"There is either a single, equitable justice system or none at all." Is this your final decision? Is it possible to have justice without the wealthy paying for it?

Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

I believe that these white collar type criminals should be exiled instead of imprisoned. Make them live few years above the arctic circle in Futbuck, Alaska.

Aaron The Young

One case is over, the other is only beginning. Let’s wait until both sentences are in motion before a comparison is made.


Stay Informed