Manafort’s Sentencing Highlights Problems in the Criminal Justice System—But Not In the Way Many Claim

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Lengthy sentences do not make society safer or deter crime.

The criticism of Manafort’s sentence did not stop with critiques of the troubling disparities in the criminal justice system. Many also condemned the sentence as too short. An editorial in the Boston Globe said “Talk about a slap on the wrist,” while an op-ed on CNN.com written by a former federal prosecutor decried, “Simply put, Judge Ellis's sentence is an injustice. It fails to adequately punish Manafort for committing a series of deliberate crimes over many years.”

The problem, however, is not that Manafort’s sentence is too lenient—it is that other sentences in the United States are much too harsh. We think three and a half years and 47 months in prison are short sentences only because we expect such a vastly longer norm. In other countries, the expectations are different. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, more than 90 percent of prison sentences are for two years or less. In Norway, the maximum prison sentence a person can receive for premeditated murder, no matter the number of victims, is 21 years. That’s less than the maximum the federal sentencing guidelines recommended for Manafort’s tax and bank fraud. In handing down the sentence Judge Ellis rightly recognized that our sense of an appropriate sentence is off kilter, calling the federal sentencing guidelines “excessive.” And research confirms that lengthy sentences do not make society safer or deter crime. They do, however, damage people and communities, while costing tax payers billions of dollars.

Manafort’s 47-month sentence may be an outlier in its leniency within the American system, but the answer is not to give him a longer prison sentence. Rather, everyone passing through the criminal justice system deserves a judge who thinks critically about lengthy sentencing guidelines, and provides individual consideration to that person. We do not need the courts to treat Manafort like everyone else. We need the courts to treat everyone else like a wealthy, privileged white man.