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The Disparity Between Manafort's Sentence And Other Crime Sentences

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Scott Hechinger was also surprised to learn that Paul Manafort's sentence was just under four years in prison. Hechinger is a public defender in Brooklyn, and he reacted to the news with this tweet that quickly went viral.

SCOTT HECHINGER: (Reading) For context on Manafort's 47 months in prison, my client yesterday was offered 36 to 72 months in prison for stealing $100 worth of quarters from a residential laundry room.

SHAPIRO: Hechinger then continued with a thread of examples of people who'd been sentenced for relatively minor crimes.

Scott Hechinger, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

HECHINGER: Thanks for having me on, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Before we dive into larger issues here, can you give us another example or two, from your experience, that you think puts the Manafort sentence into perspective?

HECHINGER: We have a 16-year-old - one of my colleagues is representing a 16-year-old charged with assault in the second degree for biting a police officer - never has been arrested before, he bit him on his hand. If he goes to trial, he's facing a mandatory minimum of two years, a maximum of seven, and the prosecution's offering two years. One of my colleagues represents a 30-year-old charged with a gun that was found in a dresser inside his house. He's also being offered two years.

And one of my colleagues just finished a trial where her client was charged with a commercial burglary. No one was injured. There was no weapon. And the insurance company for the business actually paid for everything. And now that person is going to be - have to be sentenced between two and seven years.

And so right now, today, you don't have to go to hypotheticals. My colleagues and I have cases right now where there is a lot less attention focused on the individual, on the impact of prison that it could have on them and, really, a big disparity in how we see white, rich, privileged people charged with white collar crimes versus our clients who are predominantly people of color living in communities that don't have a lot of money.

SHAPIRO: Are you objecting to the lenient sentence that Paul Manafort got or the severe sentence that your clients got?

HECHINGER: The latter. I'm not outraged at the four years that Manafort got. In fact, I think four years is a lot of time for anyone. What concerns me, and what makes me angry, and what outrages my colleagues is the difference in treatment that our clients get.

SHAPIRO: So the question is why? What makes Manafort's case different from the cases that you handle every day?

HECHINGER: You can try to take the criminal justice process, our system of mass incarceration, you know, who gets charged? Who gets arrested? Who winds up sitting in jail while their case is pending? And then ultimately, what is the outcome? And across the board, it's different. Why is it different? You know, look. It's a complicated question, but as far as I can tell, there is deeply ingrained racism in our system, whether it's conscious or unconscious. There's a deep divide in how people think about how people from a lower socioeconomic class should be treated.

You know, there's also just a sense that this is how the system has always been. There's a strong sense of status quo, that when you see the type of crimes, you know, that come through the system every day, it's just another name and another person charged with the same thing. And it's really hard to get judges, to get prosecutors to see beyond that charge, to see beyond perhaps a criminal record and think about who the person actually is and what the right outcome is.

SHAPIRO: To some extent, we're talking about apples and oranges. Most of the cases that you handle are in state court. Paul Manafort was prosecuted in federal court. How big a difference does that make?

HECHINGER: I think four years in - I'll just say four years in prison, whether you're serving in federal or in state, is an extraordinary amount of time. So the difference between federal and state in that way doesn't make much of a difference.

SHAPIRO: Scott Hechinger, senior staff attorney and director of policy for Brooklyn Defender Services, thanks for joining us today.

HECHINGER: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.