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As far back as 2010, President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was hiding a lot of money from the IRS. Prosecutors accused him of laundering over $30 million in overseas income, using a network of companies to mask millions he earned as a political consultant and lobbyist for Ukrainian politicians. A jury convicted him on eight counts of tax and bank fraud.
Under sentencing guidelines, Manafort faced over 19 years in prison. On March 7, when a federal judge gave him less than four years, the protests came quickly.
"Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, commits bank and tax fraud and gets 47 months," Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren tweeted a few hours after the judge announced his decision. "A homeless man, Fate Winslow, helped sell $20 of pot and got life in prison. The words above the Supreme Court say 'Equal Justice Under Law' — when will we start acting like it?"
The juxtaposition that Warren cited is real, but there’s more to the backstory.
In 2008, Louisiana man Fate Vincent Winslow sold $20 worth of marijuana to an undercover police officer working on a prostitution operation in Shreveport. But it wasn’t that single sale alone that landed him with such a severe sentence.
Winslow had three prior felony convictions — 24 years earlier for simple burglary, another simple burglary conviction 15 years before, and possession of cocaine in 2004. He had no convictions for violent crimes.
The sale netted Winslow $5 (the rest went to the men who provided the pot) but under Louisiana’s habitual offender law, at trial, prosecutors sought and got a life sentence for Winslow.
Winslow appealed. Two judges found nothing unusual that merited leniency.
"The defendant has failed to rebut the presumption by showing that he is exceptional," they wrote in 2010. "The fact that his prior offenses were nonviolent is, by itself, insufficient."
Winslow remains behind bars.
Winslow would not have faced a life sentence were it not for the state’s three-strikes, law for repeat offenders.
"It would be very hard to find a Winslow case in the federal system," City University of New York criminologist Candace McCoy said. "The federal level has a heavy concentration on people smuggling and dealing the drugs in volume, and not possession and small sales. People convicted of serious drug charges are less likely to face a three-strikes issue because they face long sentences right off the bat."
Fordham University law professor John Pfaff echoed that point.
"Nationwide almost all people serving long sentences are in for violence, usually serious charges," Pfaff said. "I can’t think of any federal cases that result in life for such a small amount of weed. Louisiana is in many ways uniquely harsh in this specific context."
It is also important to look at how Manafort’s white-collar offense and Winslow’s drug sale play out differently when it comes to habitual offender laws. Street criminals are much more likely to be subject to a three-strikes rule simply because street crime is much more common.
The National White Collar Crime Center reported that in 2014, arrests for forgery, fraud and embezzlement totalled about 96,000. That same year, the FBI reported over 9.4 million violent and property crimes, including the sort of burglary offenses that Winslow had on his record — a nearly 100-fold difference.
McCoy added that Winslow might have been hit with what she called the "trial penalty." It’s up to the prosecutors to push for the maximum sentence, if they choose.
"If you don’t take the plea deal they offer, you face the maximum," McCoy said. "This is the way they force people to forgo the right to trial."
Katherine Maris Mattes, director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at Tulane Law School in New Orleans, said if Winslow were sentenced today, it’s possible he could have avoided a life sentence.
"There’s been a continual reduction in who is subject to the habitual offender statute," Mattes said. "Recently, they changed the look-back period to five years. So if it’s been more than five years since a person completed their sentence for a previous offense, it breaks the chain of offenses for purposes of the law."
Winslow’s history went back 24 years to his first conviction.
Mattes also noted that lower income offenders are far more likely to be caught up in a three-strikes law. Enforcement of street crime felonies is more widespread than white-collar investigations.
This was Manafort’s first conviction, as the judge noted. He faces a second judge for sentencing on March 13 for related offenses.
Warren juxtaposed Manafort’s 47-month sentence with the case of Winslow, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for selling $20 worth of marijuana. The basic facts are correct. To clarify, though, it was his three prior convictions, the oldest coming 24 years before, that made Winslow subject to Louisiana’s habitual offender law.
We rate this claim Mostly True.
Elizabeth Warren, tweet, March 7, 2019
American Civil Liberties Union, A living death: Life without parole for nonviolent offenses, November 2013
Free Law Project, State v. Winslow, 55 So. 3d 910, Dec. 15, 2010
Daily Beast, Life in Prison for Selling $20 of Weed, Feb. 27, 2015
Rolling Stone, Pot Prisoners: Meet Five Victims of the War on Drugs, Sept. 13, 2017
Lawfare, Litigation Documents Related to the Mueller Investigation, accessed March 11, 2019
Louisiana State Legislature, Habitual offender law, accessed March 11, 2019
FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, 2014
Oxford Research Encyclopedia, Statistical Analysis of White-Collar Crime, April 2017
Los Angeles Times, The feds just passed criminal justice reform. Here's why state-level efforts matter more, Dec. 30, 2018
Interview, Candace McCoy, criminologist, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Graduate Center, City University of New York, March 8, 2019
Email interview, Shon Hopwood, associate professor of Law, Georgetown School of Law, March 8, 2019
Interview, Katherine Maris Mattes, senior professor of the practice, director, Criminal Justice Clinic, Tulane Law School, March 8, 2019
Email interview, John Pfaff, professor of law, Fordham University School of Law, March 8, 2019
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