Righteous Americans develop a fondness for long prison sentences

My Facebook friends are expressing their dismay that Paul Manafort was recently sentenced to only about 4 years in prison for tax evasion. CNN describes the prison sentence as “light” in “Manafort’s light sentence shines a light on US prison inequality”.

Certainly I would expect this kind of zeal for long prison terms from executives in the American prison industry, but none of these folks owe their paychecks to the incarceration mill.

How does Manafort’s first sentence (he’s still being chased by some other prosecutors for some other crimes) compare to sentences considered fair a few decades ago?

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States says that circa 1980, the average time served in prison for an American convicted of murder was 5 years.

Japanese war criminals responsible for killing thousands rather than millions of innocent people were released after about four years (nytimes, 1949; see also the Wikipedia page on Japanese war criminals (none served more than 13 years)). The typical convicted Nazi war criminal was released after a few years (Wikipedia list of the highest-profile ones). Some of the higher level ones were imprisoned until the mid-1950s (example: Otto Hofmann, one of the architects of the death camp system at the Wannsee Conference).

Damir Dosen was “indicted for persecutions, inhumane treatment and torture as crimes against humanity and for outrages upon personal dignity, torture and cruel treatment as violations of the laws or customs of war”, pleaded guilty, and was found “responsible for crimes against humanity”. The Bosnian Serb was sentenced to 5 years and served 3.5 (released in 2003).

How about Jussie Smollett? He has now been indicted for 16 felonies as a consequence of trying to expose Trump supporters for who they really are (unfortunately he didn’t know where to find any actual Trump supporters). He could be imprisoned for up to 64 years (Vox).


14 thoughts on “Righteous Americans develop a fondness for long prison sentences

  1. Far too many people are ready to throw criminals away without really taking any time to understand the situation. It allows them to feel very smug and signal their righteousness. Jesus was on to something when he said “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

    • Peter: That’s a point I hadn’t considered. The folks who are posting these demands for a tax evasion prison sentence to be far longer have previously advocated bigger government with more tax revenue. I wonder if all of them have paid the sales/use tax on their out-of-state purchases as required by law (local example: https://www.mass.gov/service-details/individual-use-tax )

    • Classic Republicanism though. Run on “tough on crime” for decades, but when one of your own is in the dock say “sometimes people deserve a break, for the greater good.

  2. White collar crime pays. Rich folks just buy their way out of trouble. Just like large corporations. What ever happened to the thousands of people who were revealed to be using offshore banks to avoid taxes a few years back? They paid what they owed and some modest fines probably. Manafort knew better. He’s an intelligent guy who went to considerable effort to avoid paying taxes for many years. Millions stolen from American tax payers. People born into unfortunate circumstances with no role-models and poor education get pinched for a few minor criminal offenses get more time. Capitalism is a framework in which the smart and wealthy powerful people demand to be protected from the mean and physically powerful people. People are rewarded for taking advantage of people intellectually, but physical dominance isn’t tolerated. Tribes in Fiji still do it the old fashioned way.

    • He evaded $6 million in taxes, according to https://www.cnn.com/politics/live-news/paul-manafort-sentencing/h_7387e97caf55ddb5e8d8fbae2948fc3a

      Right now our court/jury system values a human life at far more than $6 million. Simple embarrassment can cause $115 million in actual damages to a single person (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bollea_v._Gawker ).

      So to me the fact that Manafort was sentenced to roughly the same prison term as a murderer circa 1980 shows that attitudes have changed.

      You asked what happened to the big offshore tax shelter fraud operations of recent times? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KPMG_tax_shelter_fraud says that $2.5 billion in tax was evaded. It does not seem as though any of the taxpayers were criminally indicted, only the accountants and lawyers. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/02/business/02kpmg.html says that at least three were sentenced to prison terms of 6-10 years.

      Per dollar of tax evaded, Manafort’s sentence is much longer than what was imposed on the folks who ran the KPMG-affiliated shelters.

    • Well Manafort led a “blameless life” other than his many crimes. Maybe those other people were actual saints who only evaded those taxes to give it directly to the poor ( but not immigrants! ).

    • Philg, it depends. If you’re a Surgeon in your 30’s with a loving family and a long and prosperous career ahead of you, your value is substantial in the eyes of the court. If you’re just a landscaper, not so much. Two Dr’s racing on Laguna Canyon Rd, one in a Tesla, the other in a Porsche, take out a landscaper head on in a beat up pickup truck. The Dr. will probably get off with a slap on the wrist after years of legal battles involving high dollar lawyers and experts, seeing as how he’s an upstanding and productive member of society(other than murdering someone). If it had been the other way around, landscaper takes out Dr., you can bet the outcome would be much different concluding with a swift plea bargain and lengthy prison sentence.

      Seems like most aspects of our legal system take into account some kind of financial order of magnitude. Estimated missed earnings for lives taken/lost or wrongful termination. How much property was stolen, quantity of drugs possessed or dealt.

      Why would tax fraud be any different? People talk like $6M in dodged taxes is something to scoff at. That’s more than double an entire lives salary for a household earning a median income! It works out to $4198 per day of prison. I’m guessing drug dealers get away with three to four orders of magnitude less than their white collar counterparts. Think of all the folks who don’t get caught. Like I said, white collar crime pays!

  3. The sentencing judge apparently did not place a lot of weight on any of his supposed wrongdoing except the tax evasion & four years sounds about right for evading $6m in taxes. White collar sentencing tends to be quite harsh & is a sop to the masses since most white collar crime is not really crime in the sense of being morally wrong (like murder, rape and robbery) –but rather regulatory offenses that should be punished civilly, like insider trading, violating campaign finance laws or whatever. The little guy though likes to think that he too would be rich if only he did not play by the rules and most white collar crime is an effort to humor that point of view.

    • Personally, I feel that your typical murder or robbery, performed in a moment of emotion or a life of desperate circumstances are less objectionable to the careful, considered theft of tens of thousands of retirement funds or the undermining of our system of government by those who are comfortable seeking riches.

    • Theft isn’t morally wrong?

      Rigging an election isn’t morally wrong?

      Defrauding investors isn’t morally wrong?

      Some set of morals you have, wow.

    • It should be harsh, it’s meant to be punitive and serve as a deterrent. And rightly so. Otherwise, if the punishment was only to make amends, no one would pay their taxes. They’d just wait to maybe get caught, and settle up after the fact. If you’re avoiding $6M in taxes, there is no excuse. Not ignorance, not being unable to employ skilled people on your behalf, nada.

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