This new AP article, headlined “Charged in Jan. 6 riot? Yes, but prison may be another story,” reviews potental sentencing outcomes for their role in the January 6 Capitol riot. Here are some excerpts, to be followed by a bit of contextual commentary:
More than 400 people have been charged with federal crimes in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. But prison time may be another story.
With new defendants still flooding into Washington’s federal court, the Justice Department is under pressure to quickly resolve the least serious of cases. While defendants charged with crimes such as conspiracy and assaulting officers during the insurrection could be looking at hefty sentences, some members of the mob who weren’t caught joining in the violence or destruction could see little to no time behind bars.
“The people who were just there for the ride and somewhat clueless, I think for most of them they probably will not get prison time. And for what it’s worth, I think that’s appropriate,” said Rachel Barkow, a professor at the New York University School of Law. “Having a misdemeanor on their record, going through all this is probably a pretty big wake-up call for most of the folks,” she said.
The siege was like nothing the country had ever seen, as the mob of supporters of then-President Donald Trump descended on the Capitol to stop the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s election victory. But in the months since, Trump loyalists have worked to minimize the assault, while Democrats and others want justice for what they saw as a crime against democracy and the rule of law….
It’s a formidable task for lawyers and judges alike to determine the appropriate punishment to seek and hand down. Many defendants had steady jobs and no criminal records, factors typically rewarded with leniency in the criminal justice system. As plea negotiations ramp up, the Justice Department must work to differentiate between the varying actions of the members of the mob that day without making it seem like some are getting away with mere slaps on the wrist….
Of the more than 400 federal defendants so far, at least 100 are facing only lower-level crimes such as disorderly conduct and entering a restricted area that do not typically result in time behind bars for first-time offenders. Hundreds more were also charged with more serious offenses — like conspiracy, assault or obstruction of an official proceeding — that carry hefty prison time of years behind bars, but theses defendants could take pleas that would wipe those charges from their cases. Prosecutors have said they expect to charge at least 100 more people.
It’s going to be a test of racial fairness. The majority of the defendants are white. Black and Latino defendants tend to face harsher sentences for the same crimes, and from the moment the mob marched on the Capitol, there were questions about whether the law enforcement response would have been different had the rioters been people of color….
If prosecutors seek stiff sentences for the lowest level Capitol riot defendants, they could lose their credibility with judges, said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches at Loyola Law School. And if they set the standard too high, they’ll be juggling hundreds of cases going to trial instead of focusing on the major offenders. Those most serious cases are where prosecutors can and should send a strong message, Levenson said. “If there’s any pressure on the Justice Department, it’s to deal with these cases in a way so that you never have to see them again,” she said. “And if people think that the price isn’t too high, who knows?”
At least one judge has expressed frustration at the pace of the prosecutions, which have overwhelmed the federal court already backlogged because of pandemic-related delays. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper ordered the pretrial release of a man who was photographed sitting with his feet on a desk in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. The judge expressed concern that the case is moving too slowly.
Cooper noted that Richard Barnett has been jailed for nearly four months and questioned whether his time behind bars while the case is ongoing could exceed a possible sentence should Barnett plead guilty. The prosecutor estimated that the government would recommend a prison term ranging from nearly six years to 7 1/4 years if Barnett is convicted, though he could get credit for accepting responsibility if he pleads guilty.
All high-profile posecutions, particularly when they involve persons without significant criminal histories, provide interesting settings to explore sentencing purposes and practices. These Capitol riot prosecutions have the added politial intrigue of having those who usually advocate for harsher forms of justice likely being much more sympathetic to these defendants, while at least some usually most troubled by harsh sentencing may be more supportive of prison terms this unique setting. And, as this AP article rightly notes, there overarching surely concerns about racial and social equity in light of historic patterns of prosecution and sentencing practices.
But the equity issue leaves me eager to see more comprehensive and consistent converage of punishments being handed out to others involved in criminal behavior during other protests through 2020. For example, consider these sentencing reports from local press in recent weeks:
- Fedeal prosecution: “Brainerd man sentenced to 4 years for Minneapolis police station fire during Floyd protests“
- Federal prosecution: “Edmonds man sentenced to prison for torching police cars during Seattle riot“
- Fedeal prosecution: “Moorhead man sentenced to 2 years in federal prison following Fargo riots“
- Fedeal prosecution: “Fargo man who stomped squad car during riot sentenced to probation“
- State prosecution: “Eric Christopher Ruffin [pled] guilty to third-degree arson [and] was sentenced to three years on probation.”
- State prosecution: “Drunken rioter gets probation; judge counsels him ‘not to pick up the bottle’“
I am certain that this is NOT anything clsoe to a thorough accounting of the sentences that have been already handed down to persons who have engaged in criminal activity during protests and riots (e.g., here is a press report from Dec 2020 of a few case outcomes in Oregon). I am even more certain that it could provide incredibly valuable for ultimately examining and assessing Capitol riot outcomes to have some kind of thorough overview of outcomes in these other (similar?) cases.
Prior related posts:
- “Many Capitol rioters unlikely to serve jail time” because some facing only misdemeanor convictions
- Noting the importance of charging policies and practices (and consistency?) as federal rioting charges get resolved from coast-to-coast
- Harsh penal treatment of some Capitol rioters being criticized by notable progressive |