Former Trump 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort, also known as federal prisoner number 35207-016, will be released from prison imminently and sent to home confinement because he is at risk of contracting the coronavirus. That's the humane thing to do, right? The guy is 71 years old and his crimes were nonviolent. Is society really better off with Paul Manafort in prison? Are we safer? But those aren't the questions we should be asking.
The real question is why aren't we seeing mass releases of elderly or at-risk prisoners? Congress, before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, made it easier for prisoners to be released under the "compassionate release" program. A prisoner can be released if there are "compelling reasons," such as advanced age or terminal illness where the prisoner has less than 18 months to live. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) files a motion in federal court to reduce the prisoner's sentence. And the sentencing court then finds that "extraordinary and compelling reasons" warrant a reduction. The prisoner is then released.
Since the pandemic began, the Department of Justice has made it even easier to release prisoners. A prisoner must petition the warden of his prison and argue successfully that he has completed at least 75 percent of his sentence, that he is nonviolent, he has never been a member of a gang or an organized crime "family," he did not have a gun enhancement in his case, and that he has a co-morbidity like heart disease or diabetes that puts him at a high risk of contracting the coronavirus. If the warden denies the request, or if 30 days pass without a response, the prisoner then may petition the sentencing court for relief.
With all that said, very, very few people have been released. And Paul Manafort shouldn't have been one of them. He simply doesn't meet the criteria. He only went to prison in July 2018 and he is not due to be released until March 2026. He does meet the age requirement, and his crimes were nonviolent, but there are literally thousands of prisoners who meet all the requirements who should have been released before him.
Was the decision to let Manafort go home political? You bet it was. President Trump's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, with whom Trump has feuded, also was due to be released because of the coronavirus. But out of nowhere, on May 1, Cohen's release was "postponed indefinitely." I can't imagine that it was a coincidence.
The mainstream media ought to be looking at BOP policy or, more accurately, the breakdown in BOP policy. It is no secret that the United States has five percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prison population. It is no surprise that Congress has created 500 new crimes -- not new laws, but new crimes, things that were legal a decade ago that are now felonies -- in the past 10 years. As a country, we should be actively seeking ways to get people out of prison, rather than putting new people in, or lengthening sentences for the crimes already on the books.
The problem didn't begin with the coronavirus, of course. It began with Richard Nixon's "War on Crime" and Ronald Reagan's criminal justice "reforms" of the 1980s, and the Democratic Congress's decision to do away with federal parole. If you're sentenced to 10 years, you do 10 years. Sure, there's 13.5 percent time off for good behavior. But with the "get tough on crime" measures of just about every administration in the past 50 years, sentences are far longer than they once were, and as I said, Congress has created so many new crimes.
That's why compassionate release should be such an important part of the criminal justice process. What happens when you're 65 or 70 years old and you still have years behind bars ahead of you, despite the fact that your crime was nonviolent? Why isn't home confinement an option? And if it is an option, as in the case of Paul Manafort, it should be an option for everybody.
The bottom line is this: The entire system is broken. The misguided "get tough on crime" attitude in Washington has made us a prison state unlike any other in the world. As Americans, we like to think that we're (usually) led by the best and brightest. Certainly the best and brightest can come up with a justice system where there's some actual "justice."
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