Is white-collar crime treated more leniently in the US?

By George Pierpoint
BBC UGC and Social News

Image source, William Hennessy Jr

The sentencing of Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chairman, has sparked an intense debate about the way white-collar crime is punished in America.

The perceived leniency of the sentence handed down by US District Judge TS Ellis was met with disbelief and outrage by many legal experts.

Manafort was sentenced to 47 months in prison as punishment for a string of fraud charges, estimated to have cost the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) millions of dollars.

The reaction on social media was swift, with many condemning the sentence and suggesting it was indicative of a wider problem in how the US legal system unfairly treats different types of criminals.

Amy Klobuchar, Democratic Senator for Minnesota and presidential candidate, tweeted: "Crimes committed in an office building should be treated as seriously as crimes committed on a street corner."

Is the sentence lenient?

Duncan Levin, an expert in financial crimes and former federal prosecutor, called 47 months a "shockingly low" sentence.

"The sentence is very lenient, end of story," Mr Levin told the BBC. "It is significantly lenient for a crime of this magnitude."

He said that he was left "puzzled by the sentence" and suggested that it "had left a lot of people scratching their heads".

Mr Levin added that given the "very serious" nature of Manafort's crimes, he would have expected a harsher sentence.

"I think perhaps the judge felt strongly personally about Manafort's situation, and maybe that came into play in his decision."

Paul Leighton, a professor of criminology at Eastern Michigan University who has written extensively on white-collar crime, agrees that the sentence is surprisingly low.

He points out that 47 months is "below even what [Manafort's] attorney argued he deserved".

Mr Leighton told the BBC that comparing Manafort's sentence to other white-collar criminals can be "problematic" given the many variables involved in each case.

However, the high-profile case of ex-political lobbyist Jack Abramoff shares some of the traits of Manafort's case, including its connection to a wider investigation and the defendant's proximity to the political elite.

Abramoff was sentenced to five years in jail in 2006 for defrauding Native American tribes out of at least $45m (£26m) as well as tax evasion, bank fraud and conspiracy to bribe public officials.

Throughout his trial Abramoff cooperated with investigators, which contributed to the conviction of 10 officials, including congressman Bob Ney.

Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle said she had recognised Mr Abramoff's cooperation by sharply reducing his sentence.

Jerome Kerviel, the French ex-banker who was found guilty of one of the biggest banking frauds ever he lost €4.9bn (£3.82bn) through unauthorised transactions, served three years in prison in 2010.

How do judges decide a sentence?

Manafort's sentence is far shorter than the suggested range of 19.5 to 24 years put forward in sentencing guidelines cited by prosecutors.

Sentencing guidelines are designed to help judges decide the severity of punishment, and take into account things like the number of victims and the defendant's past.

For example, bank fraud is punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a maximum fine of $1m (£768,500) in the US, but the guidelines enable a judge to work out where on the scale a case sits.

Mr Levin acknowledges that "judges are entitled not to follow the guidance, that's part of the discretion they have in the US".

"But the guidelines ensure that court to court and judge to judge, similar sentences are given to similar defendants," he explains. "It's about consistency, and this sentence is way outside the range expected."

While many were shocked by the size of the disparity between the suggested and actual sentence, it fits a trend.

A 2017 study, reported that the majority of federal judges in white-collar cases "frequently sentence well below the fraud guideline".

"Federal trial judges now follow the advisory fraud guideline range in less than half of all cases."

Mr Levin is keen to point out that he is not calling for harsher punishments to be introduced, and hopes that Manafort's case will start a general conversations about the extremes of sentencing.

The US issues some of the harshest prison sentences in the world, and a recent study found the average time served is increasing.

Are white-collar criminals treated differently?

The short sentence was interpreted by many to be further evidence that white-collar crimes, committed by well-off white men, are not punished as harshly as others.

Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that "justice isn't blind, it's bought" in reaction to the sentencing, while constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe tweeted that Judge Ellis showed "preferential treatment to a rich white guy".

Neil Blackmon, a lawyer from Florida, tweeted that the sentence was a "scathing indictment of the justice system".

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Black men in America receive 19.1% longer sentences than white men for similar crimes, according a recent US Sentencing Commission report.

The commission also found that judges are more likely to use their discretion to cut an offender's sentence if the offender is white.

Scott Hechinger is a senior attorney at the Brooklyn Defender Service and advocates on behalf of people who often cannot afford legal representation.

He says that race and class both inform how a defendant is treated.

Mr Hechinger pointed to one of his clients who was offered a similar sentence to Manafort for "stealing $100 worth of quarters".

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"The majority of people in the system, disproportionately poor, black and Latino, are rarely if ever treated with same kind of mercy, sympathy and individualised justice [Mr Manafort received]," he told the BBC.

"While white-collar criminal laws are rarely enforced, people in the communities I serve are targeted, over-policed, and often arrested merely for living."

Paul Leighton agrees: "Judges and many in the legal system tend to see white-collar criminals - especially Caucasian white-collar criminals - as being good people who made a mistake, while the poor and minorities are more likely to have their crime seen as a reflection of their bad character."

In the wake of the Manafort's sentencing, many lawyers pointed out the "white privilege" he enjoyed, compared to the harsh treatment of black offenders.

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Paul Leighton told the BBC that white-collar criminals often "get a break under the sentencing guidelines for being first time offenders", despite often having "long patterns of criminal conduct".

Mr Leighton explains that financial crimes are frequently "complicated and the result of planning or at least many decisions that set up the crime, allow it to continue and possibly cover it up, but [defendants] are considered first time offenders and get the benefit".

Are white-collar crimes that bad?

Georgie Weatherby is a professor of sociology and criminology at Gonzaga University, and she believes the public has a misconception about the seriousness of white-collar crimes.

"The costs to society of white-collar crime are immense, but people don't feel them directly. How safe they feel in their homes, where they can walk at night, these are the issues people feel. They are tangible."

However, the FBI estimates that white-collar crimes costs the US economy more than $300bn (£228bn) a year, and can have serious impacts of people's lives.

When companies or individuals illegally avoid paying taxes, there is less money for public services such as schools and infrastructure.

In the US, white-collar crime also increases the cost of healthcare.

The FBI predicts that "losses due to fraudulent activity approached 10% of the amount of money that we expend in healthcare."

While Ms Weatherby notes that some high-profile white-collar criminal cases have caught the attention of the American public, such as the Enron scandal, she suggests "people have short memories" and any outrage "quickly dies down".

Ms Weatherby adds that society romanticises white-collar criminals, and the money and power they often accrue, which affects the treatment they receive.

"Defendants, particularly in very high-level crimes, often project an image of success. They have wealth, and access and are glamorous," she says. "Judges can get caught up in that, they can be drawn to it."

Ms Weatherby told the BBC that white-collar criminals are "conceptualised as the American Dream gone wrong", which "leads to different outcomes treatment".

Paul Leighton goes even further, and suggests that some Americans are "so anti-government that tax fraud is not seen as a crime, and even many law and other conservatives see tax fraud as patriotic".