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).
The system isnât broken because Manafort got four years rather than the 19-year recommendation that the sentencing guidelines spat out. The system is broken because other people get the long sentenceâbecause other poorer and often darker people donât get the same chances. Itâs broken at every level, in obvious and obscure ways. Blaming the injustice on a single judge, like Ellis, is an oversimplified evasion of the problem.
(...) That means that while in theory justice applies equally to all Americans, in practice, the cost of liberty is far higher for the poor — leading to unnecessary detention in often overcrowded jails, causing poor defendants to miss and lose work, burdening them with “pay to stay” costs as they are charged for their own incarceration, and ultimately trapping them in a crippling cycle of debt and detention.
That’s not only senseless — it is also illegal. After the United States banned debtors’ prisons at the federal level in 1833, most states also banned the practice, yet imprisonment for nonpayment of child support, alimony, fines, traffic tickets, and other state-mandated forms of debt remains widespread. As the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, dramatically exposed, local governments across the country have often relied on tickets and fines to fund their budgets, a practice so common that the DOJ’s civil rights division recently issued a memo reminding courts of the basic constitutional principles of due process and equal protection. The memo also reminded “court leaders” that profiting off indigent defendants is illegal, and that funding government on the backs of poor citizens has a deeply damaging impact on public trust in its institutions. (...)
Before Samour imposed his sentence, he directed most of his hour-long comments toward the survivors and victims' families. He defended the justice system in the face of criticism about the outcome — in which jurors convicted Holmes of every count he faced but split over whether he should be executed, the harshest punishment allowed by state law. Samour pushed back against the suggestion that the case should have been settled by a plea bargain rather than going to trial.
Look at the outcome another way, he urged. Look at the information learned about the crime that would have remained hidden without a trial. See the opportunities that parents had to tell the jurors about their slain children.
People in the courtroom audience stared back stone-faced. But as Samour ticked through some of those details for each of the slain victims — Jonathan Blunk's strength, Jesse Childress' sense of adventure, Matthew McQuinn's charm — the faces in the courtroom softened. Some began to cry.
"We are different from the criminal who is on trial," he said.
That criminal quit on life, Samour said. He suffered some setbacks — a failure at school, a broken relationship — and he just gave up, deciding instead to commit "horrific, senseless, heinous, cowardly, shocking acts."
It was a credit to the justice system that a jury of strangers — a literal representation of the community that Holmes struck at — could hold him accountable for his crimes, Samour said. And it was a poignant footnote that at least one juror showed the killer the mercy that he showed none of his victims.
"Your healing is not tied to the defendant's fate," Samour said to the audience. "And you've shown that.