Explaining The Sentencing of Paul Manafort

As a criminal defense attorney in Dallas, Attorney John Helms offers his unique perspective of the Paul Manafort sentencing on March 7th, 2019 and the implications of the sentence length.

I am very troubled by the sentencing of Paul Manafort yesterday.

According to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, he should have received a sentence of at least 19 years.  The 47-month sentence he received was roughly an 80 percent downward departure from the Sentencing Guidelines—a breathtaking departure for someone who did not plead guilty and who did not substantially assist the government by cooperating.  

Paul Manafort is an older white Republican male.  The judge who sentenced him is also an older white Republican male.  I simply cannot help but wonder how often this federal judge has departed downward to this extraordinary extent for persons of color.  The judge called the Sentencing Guidelines in this case “excessive.”  I think it is legitimate to ask why the Sentencing Guidelines were supposedly “excessive” for this white male and are rarely “excessive” for persons of color.  

The whole purpose of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines is to try to make criminal sentencing uniform throughout the country.  There are about 670 federal trial judges. They are in every state—from Florida to Alaska and from Hawaii to Maine.  In the federal system judges, not juries, decide the sentences for criminal defendants.  Therefore, each one of those judges decides the sentences of defendants who commit federal crimes.  

One goal of the federal criminal justice system is to treat people who commit the same crime, and who have the same criminal history, about the same way.  And this should be true whether the defendant is a black man in Alabama or a white man in Oregon.  The Federal Sentencing Guidelines try to do this, while still giving judges room to take into account individual situations.  

The Guidelines are used by each one of the federal judges around the country.  They are like a big book.  They have sections on each federal crime, whether it is a bank robbery, securities fraud, drug dealing, or airline hijacking.  The judge uses the section that applies to the crime in each particular case.  Using that section, the judge calculates an “Offense Level,” which is a number of points.  The worse the conduct, the higher the number of points.  For example, a crime may start out with 10 points.  If the defendant had a gun during the crime, two points might be added.  If a person was seriously injured, more points might be added.  Points can be subtracted if the defendant played only a minor role, if the defendant accepts responsibility for the crime, and in other situations.

The judge also calculates the defendant’s Criminal History Category. Basically, this means that the more prior criminal convictions someone has, and the more serious they are, the higher the Criminal History Category.

Once the Offense Level and the Criminal History Category have been calculated, they are applied to a table, which gives a range of punishment in months.  For example, an Offense Level of 30, with a Criminal History Category of 2, results in a recommended range of punishment between 108-135 months.  The higher the Offense Level, the higher the range of months.  The higher the Criminal History Category, the higher the range of months.

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines have been around for over 30 years.  They are administered by an independent organization called the Federal Sentencing Commission.  They are based on a huge amount of data about federal sentences.  They have been adjusted every few years, as appropriate, to try to ensure fairness and proportionality.  They have been extensively studied.  They are not perfect.  I have written, for example, about how the Guidelines for methamphetamine distribution are terribly disproportionate compared to those for other similar drugs, like heroin and cocaine.  But they are generally fair and reasonable.  They do a pretty good job of recommending a range of months that reflects the seriousness of the crime and the extent of the defendant’s criminal record.  

By law, judges are not required to sentence within the Guideline range, but most judges do so in most cases.  This is because most judges know that the Guideline range is usually an appropriate range, and because they understand the importance of avoiding situations in which a similar person who commits a similar crime in one part of the country gets a very different sentence than someone in another part of the country.  

All of this is to say that, if a judge departs from the Sentencing Guidelines range, they should have a good reason for doing so.  That reason should normally be that the facts of the particular case are uniquely different from the usual case of that type.  

The departure of roughly 80 percent in the Manafort case is simply extraordinary.  I am not aware of any facts that make Paul Manafort’s case that uniquely different from other cases of that type.

If judges completely disregard the Guidelines without a good reason, it defeats the very purpose of the Guidelines, and it erodes respect for the federal criminal justice system.  Judges know that.  So, when we see such an extraordinary departure as in the Manafort case, without what appears to be a good reason, it is natural to question what is really going on.  I do not have data on this, but I have to wonder how often people of color get this kind of extraordinary departure from this judge.  I doubt it happens often and that troubles me.  The Sentencing Guidelines were designed to prevent that.  

It is worthwhile to point out that I am an admirer of most federal judges before whom I practice.  As a former federal prosecutor, I believe very much in the federal criminal justice system.  I am also not someone who often ascribes racial motivations, or even influence, to actions by federal law enforcement, prosecutors, or judges.  In fact, the opposite is true.  I rarely do, even in controversial cases.  But the sentencing of Paul Manafort seriously concerns me.  

If you, a loved one or someone you know has been charged with a federal crime or any other crime in the Dallas area, contact Dallas criminal defense lawyer John Helms at (214) 666-8010 or fill out the online contact form. You can discuss your case, how the law may apply and your best legal options to protect your rights and freedom.


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