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When Donald Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was sentenced to 47 months in federal prison on March 7, 2019, Twitter erupted with a chorus of overwhelmingly outraged responses.

The consensus: There's an alarming disparity between Manafort's lenient sentence and the harsher sentences typically given to low-income individuals for significantly lesser crimes.

Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that Manafort's sentencing laid out for the world to see that the current justice is “broken,” to which Hofstra professor Oskar Pineño replied specifying to jail time for marijuana possession.

It didn't take long for others to respond in kind, calling out a longstanding discriminatory pattern in the U.S. criminal justice system of harsh sentences and extensive jail time for cannabis-related convictions.  

Manafort, whose case is the first brought to trial by the office of Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, was convicted August 21, 2018, of bank fraud, filing false tax returns, and failure to report foreign assets. Manafort pleaded guilty to “conspiracy against the United States,” which includes money laundering, hiding foreign bank accounts, and lying to the Department of Justice.

Manafort's 47-month sentence, given by Judge T.S. Ellis III on Thursday, is a far cry from the 19-24 years in prison calculated by the U.S. Department of Justice and recommended by Mueller's office.

Independent Maine Sen. Angus King called the Manafort sentence “astonishing” on CNN on March 8, 2019, and added, “We're going to be flooded with stories in the next 24 hours about people … selling an ounce of marijuana or stealing quarters from a laundry room with an equivalent or greater sentences.”

King was correct. In the digital age, when cannabis legalization is spreading rapidly on a state-by-state basis, U.S. citizens are more aware than ever of how unjust minor weed convictions can be.

And the Twittersphere is flooding with reactions, including a tweet from Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a leading Democratic candidate for president in 2020.

Sheila P. Vakharia, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Weedmaps News that the public outrage expresses a societal frustration that “the time doesn't match the crime.”

“Many feel that Manafort's crimes actually harmed other people and he received a relatively light sentence,” Vakharia said. “While personal possession of substances like marijuana actually pose little harm or risk to anyone other than the user, and yet people can often spend months or years behind bars for it.”

Vakharia also pointed out that Manafort's lenient sentence conveys the following messages: Sentencing is rarely about justice, but about punishment; and wealthy, white, powerful people are more deserving of it than others, regardless of how harmful their behaviors may be.

According to Vakharia, the public has become increasingly aware of how mandatory minimum drug sentences often lead to people languishing in prisons for years, while affluent, high-profile, and well-connected offenders like Manafort are treated with leniency. “People now have a basis of moral comparison,” Vakharia said.

Social justice has become a pressing issue of cannabis legalization. State and local governments are beginning to acknowledge how low-income communities — and communities of color in particular — have been punished disproportionately under the weight of federal cannabis law. And state and local governments are trying to re-evaluate and clear marijuana-related convictions.  

 

Paul Manafort, then chair of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, speaks to ABC News July 20, 2016, during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Manafort's sentence of 47 months in federal prison on fraud and tax evasion charges drew widespread condemnation for leniency when Manafort could have faced as much as 24 years in prison. (ABC photo by Ida Mae Astute via Flickr; used with a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license)

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