While there are many theories of punishment and these invite endless debate, there are some basic principles that seem quite plausible within the context of the political and moral philosophy of American thought.
In general, it seems reasonable to accept (within this context) that punishments in the legal system need to be consistent, impartial and proportionate. Consistency in punishments requires that the same crimes be punished in the same manner and to the same degree, allowing for application of the principle of relevant difference. The need to allow for relevant difference is, of course, the fact that crimes are rarely identical and the differences between crimes of the same type can be relevant to sentencing. Naturally, one might insist that these differences would make for different crimes, but this can be considered by comparing relevantly similar crimes.
Impartiality requires that the same punishments be applied to people regardless of their race, religion, economic class and other such factors that are not relevant. Naturally, relevant differences can be justly applied—which can cause considerable debate over what is and is not relevant.
Proportionate punishment requires that, as the saying goes, the punishment fits the crime. This can also be applied across crimes. For example, since cocaine and crack are essentially the same sort of drug, any punishments for possessing or selling them should be the same regardless of whether the drug was cocaine or crack cocaine.
As should be expected, the American criminal justice system relentlessly fails to meet these basic principles. To illustrate this, I will make use of the case of Paul Manafort.
Manafort was, in a recent trial, sentenced to 47 months in prison for committing crimes amounting to millions of dollars. The judge regarded the sentencing guidelines, which recommended 19-24 years, as too harsh and elected for this far more lenient sentence. While it can certainly be argued that the guidelines are harsh, the general concern is whether the basic principles of justice are applied. As would be expected, they are not.
Manafort’s sentencing represents nicely the impact of being rich, white and connected on sentencing. In contrast, blacks receive 20% more time for the same crime as whites. It could be replied that blacks commit worse financial crimes or more financial crimes than white offenders and thus deserve the harsher sentences. While it is true that worse crimes should receive harsher punishment and that multiple crimes would thus result in more punishment it is not true that the 20% greater time is due to doing worse or more crimes. Black offenders are sentenced to harsher punishment for the same crimes. In fact, black offenders receive harsher punishment for lesser crimes, relative to white offenders.
For example, while Manafort was sentenced to 47 months for crimes amounting to millions of dollars, William Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years for crimes amounting to under $100,000. Jefferson is black. There are many other noteworthy examples of black people sentenced to far more time for crimes less than or equal to Manafort’s misdeeds. Naturally, people can focus on each example and contend that there are differences between these sorts of cases and Manafort’s and contend that the difference in sentencing had nothing to do with his race (or wealth, class and connections). After all, no two cases will be strictly identical. However, it would be wildly implausible to argue that the differences between Jefferson’s and Manafort’s crimes are such that they warrant 13 years for less than $100,000 in crimes and 47 months for millions of dollars in crimes. The simple fact is that even in the context of white collar crimes, if there is white skin above the white collar the sentence is consistently less than if there is black skin above that white collar. This is clearly unjust.
Drug crimes are also treated far more harshly even when the damage they do is far less than financial crimes. For example, the same judge who sentenced Manafort has sentenced a non-violent drug offender to 40 years in prison; the judge said that the guidelines gave him no choice. The same could be said of many other crimes—white collar financial crimes generally result in far less punishment than other offenses. This includes those that involve money. For example, shoplifting could result in six months to a year in jail (though this is rarely the case). In Florida, shoplifting more than $300 in merchandise is a felony and can be punished with up to five years in jail. As such, if someone steals an Xbox from a store in Florida, they could be sentenced to more time than Paul Manafort got for committing crimes amounting to millions of dollars. This is not likely, but it does show a fundamental injustice in how the justice system works.