Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager for President Donald Trump, entered Virginia federal court on Thursday facing a recommended sentence of 19 to 24 years, and left with a sentence of less than four years. Many people are outraged by what they see as an unreasonably lenient penalty for an unrepentant crook, and have accused United States District Judge T. S. Ellis of bias. Others have decried the sentence as an example of America offering two tiers of justice: one for the rich (and more often white) and one for the poor (and more often not white).
Criticizing American criminal justice is fitting and proper. But there are two kinds of critiques—simplistic ones, which let the larger system off the hook, and complicated ones, which point out that many factors combined to get Manafort the dramatic break he enjoyed. Any criticism of Ellis as an individual is woefully inadequate. The American criminal-justice system works at every stage and every level to give chances to people like Manafort and deny them to poorer people.
First, there can’t be a sentence without an investigation. After 9/11, the United States Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices that it controls shifted resources and focus from white-collar crime to drugs, guns, and immigration. In Los Angeles, the U.S. Attorney’s Office shuttered the Public Corruption and Government Fraud Section, where I served. Investigations of people like Manafort—people who have committed complex financial crimes—are time-consuming and resource-intensive. You can jail 20 drug traffickers for life with the resources it took to prosecute Manafort. America picks who goes to jail when it picks whom to investigate—which is one of the reasons so few people involved in the 2008 Wall Street debacle went to jail.