AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The sentencing of President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort has revived the age-old debate about disparities in sentencing - who gets more time in prison, who gets less and why. Prosecutors say Manafort hid more than $55 million in overseas bank accounts, defrauding both banks and the U.S. government. For that, he'll get just under four years in prison and have to pay a fine and restitution. To understand what to make of this sentence, we're joined by Barbara McQuade. She's a former federal prosecutor. She now teaches at the University of Michigan Law School. Welcome to the program.
BARBARA MCQUADE: Thanks, Audie.
CORNISH: So let's just start by saying you do not agree with the judge's decision, (laughter) right? You have said that Manafort got off easy. So let's talk about why. First of all, the sentencing guidelines for this were around 19 to 24 years in prison, and the judge said that while Manafort's crimes are very serious, that sort of punishment would have been too harsh. Is that what others convicted of similar crimes get?
MCQUADE: Well, the sentencing guidelines were begun to reduce disparities in the criminal justice system, and so the Sentencing Commission collected data from all the sentences across the country and found a mean and used that to calculate sentencing guidelines. You get additional points for aggravating factors. And so that is the best assessment of what a typical defendant committing that crime would get. And so to see the judge say 19 to 24 years is excessive and drop all the way down to four years is really a very drastic reduction from what is expected from the Sentencing Commission.
CORNISH: But they're only guidelines, right? Judges have some discretion. What are some of the factors here?
MCQUADE: You're absolutely right. There was a time when they were mandatory. The Supreme Court found that unconstitutional. And now they're just advisory, and the court is also supposed to consider things like the nature and seriousness of the offense, characteristics of the offender and other factors. And the guidelines are just one of those factors.
CORNISH: Do many judges break from the sentencing guidelines for this sort of crime? I mean, is this all that unusual?
MCQUADE: It is not all that unusual to see judges vary downward from the sentencing guidelines in white-collar cases. Which, you know, I would submit supports this notion that there is a different criminal justice system for those who are wealthy and powerful from the criminal justice system from those who are indigent. I think there is class disparity and racial disparity that goes into some of those things. But I will say I have not seen variances downward that are so drastic from, you know, 19 to 24 years all the way down to less than four.
CORNISH: Manafort will be sentenced next week for a different set of crimes in another federal court, this one in Washington. Do you see a potential for a harsher sentence there?
MCQUADE: Yes. That sentence will be imposed by Judge Amy Berman Jackson. She is limited by a 10-year statutory maximum on her sentence. And she also has the power to make that sentence either concurrent - served at the same time as the sentence imposed by Judge T.S. Ellis - or she could make it consecutive, which means it gets added onto the end. So the maximum she could impose would be something just under 14 years.
I think that she has had a chance to see Paul Manafort involved in obstruction of justice and witness tampering, for which she revoked his bond. She also was the fact-finder who found that he lied to the special counsel in his efforts to cooperate. And so I think those factors are things that she will also keep in mind as she imposes sentence.
CORNISH: At the same time, the crimes that Paul Manafort was found guilty of here, they don't have anything to do with the probe into the Trump campaign and the investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election. But do you think there's, like, a message in his sentencing to others who might be implicated in that investigation?
MCQUADE: Yeah. You know, I think that the charges did not relate to Russia, but the investigation certainly did. His contacts with people in Ukraine and overseas banks, all of that was intertwined with the investigation that Robert Mueller was conducting into Russia. I do worry a little bit that a 47-month sentence sends a message to would-be cooperators that you're not going to get hammered, even if you go to trial and are convicted. Seeing a possibility of a long sentence for those who do not cooperate, I think, is really important.
And so there is still that possibility in Washington, D.C., next week, when Judge Jackson imposes sentence. She can show the world what happens when you lie to cooperators, pretend to cooperate and continue to lie.
CORNISH: That's former federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade. Thank you for speaking with us.
MCQUADE: Thanks very much, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.