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It’s not just Paul Manafort. This is why white-collar criminals often evade harsh punishment.

We found some surprising data in our research

- March 17, 2019

Last week, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was sentenced in the second of two federal trials stemming from crimes uncovered during special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential race.

Judge T.S. Ellis III had already sentenced Manafort to four years in his Eastern District of Virginia case the week before Judge Amy Berman Jackson of Washington added 3½ years to his punishment. Many observers harshly criticized Ellis’s sentence, in particular. The judge could have put Manafort in prison for up to 24 years for his conviction on eight counts of bank and tax fraud, which prosecutors claimed amounted to at least $12 million and some suggest may be closer to $30 million.

Observers noted Ellis’s sentence fell well below that recommended by federal guidelines, which the judge called “excessive” given Manafort’s “otherwise blameless life.” Jackson also said that the sentencing guidelines as applied to Manafort were excessive. Although her sentence wasn’t as widely criticized, she nevertheless gave Manafort about half the time he could have faced.

Manafort’s case is the rule, not the exception

Manafort’s comparatively short sentence has been protested by lawyers, television commentators, politicians and other citizens. But according to our findings from research on the behavior of federal prosecutors, recently published as the book “U.S. Attorneys, Political Control, and Career Ambition,” Manafort’s sentence is consistent with those given in other white-collar criminal cases.

Relying on criminal case data obtained from the Justice Department between 1986 and 2015, we found that the median sentence is 7½ months for all cases classified as white-collar by the Justice Department between 1992 and 2015. For comparison, the median sentence in drug cases (the single largest category in our data) is 58 months. Fully 37 percent of those convicted of a white-collar crime evade prison altogether; only 9 percent of narcotics offenders escape incarceration. There are myriad reasons for these trends.

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First, white-collar cases are complex. In a narcotics or immigration case, prosecutors simply have to prove that the accused actually possessed the drug in the quantities at issue or helped people without proper documents to cross the border. By contrast, those who prosecute white-collar financial crimes must prove that the defendant intended to defraud others.

Second, white-collar crimes often involve byzantine accounting schemes without any witnesses. That can make it quite difficult to prove that the accused intended to evade the law.

Third, Supreme Court decisions and pressure from public officials and lawyers who primarily defend those accused of white-collar crimes add still more obstacles to prosecution.

Finally, many former U.S. attorneys and assistant U.S. attorneys later join law firms that defend those accused of white-collar crimes. For those considering such a career trajectory, it may be useful to pursue white-collar cases while being “reasonable” about the sentences. As they interact with defense counsels who may later wish to hire them, it can literally pay to be congenial. We found evidence that winning longer white-collar sentences decreases a U.S. attorney’s likelihood of later being hired by a large law firm.

Factors in white-collar sentencing

Political context also influences sentences for white-collar crimes. As the partisanship of those in government changes, so do the policy priorities of the U.S. attorneys, who are typically replaced en masse with a change in administration.

Consider the fact that Republicans are traditionally expected to favor business interests more than Democrats. Consistent with that, when Republicans control Congress, we find that white-collar sentences are, on average, 24 percent shorter than when Democrats do.

But to our surprise, we found that during Republican administrations, white-collar sentences are significantly longer than under Democratic presidents. This may be a result of greater reluctance to prosecute these cases in Republican administrations; the rate of white-collar case filings is 16 percent lower during Republican administrations than in Democratic ones. This suggests that only more serious cases are selected for prosecution in Republican administrations, resulting in higher average sentences.

Many think judges appointed by Democratic presidents view white-collar criminals more harshly than their Republican-appointed colleagues. Manafort’s sentences are consistent with that perception. Ellis was an appointee of President Ronald Reagan; President Barack Obama appointed Jackson.

Finally, Manafort is white, which may have helped reduce his sentence. Research has shown that, on average, African Americans receive two more months than do similarly situated white defendants in the federal judicial system. That racial disparity results from decisions made by both federal judges and federal prosecutors.

What happens to police departments that collect more fines? They solve fewer crimes.

A final word

Manafort’s story is unusual. As a onetime chairman of a successful presidential campaign and a longtime political operative, and as one of the targets of the much-watched Mueller investigation, he is highly visible. His federal conviction and sentence could disappear entirely or be reduced by a presidential pardon, although the New York attorney general is charging him with mortgage fraud and falsifying business records — which suggests that his legal woes are far from over.

But otherwise, he has had a pretty typical experience as a white-collar defendant in the federal system.

Brett Curry (@brettwcurry) is a professor of political science at Georgia Southern University.

Banks Miller (@bankspmiller) is an associate professor of political science and public policy at the University of Texas at Dallas.

They wrote the recently published “U.S. Attorneys, Political Control, and Career Ambition” (Oxford University Press, 2019).