Earlier today, former State Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson (D-North Las Vegas) formally plead guilty to one count of wire fraud. As a result, prosecutors recommended he be sentenced to 33 months in prison and a $249,900 fine this summer.
So did Atkinson get off easy, or does this appear just? And more importantly, what does this say about the larger and more pervasive problem of inequity (and really, injustice) in our criminal justice system?
What’s wire fraud, and how does this describe what Kelvin Atkinson did?
Wire fraud is considered a “white-collar crime”, as it involves schemes to defraud another person or organization using electronic communications. According to Justia, a federal wire fraud conviction is usually obtained when “the defendant was part of a scheme to defraud another person, such as by obtaining money or something else of value through false pretenses; the defendant acted knowingly or with intent to defraud; the defendant made false representations that were material to the scheme to defraud; and the defendant transmitted a material misrepresentation by wire, radio, or television communications in interstate or foreign commerce.”
So why did Kelvin Atkinson plead guilty to this charge? Keep in mind that he recently admitted to misappropriation of campaign funds for personal use. More specifically, we’ve recently learned that Atkinson siphoned off nearly $500,000 of campaign contributions to start his Urban Lounge bar and restaurant, pay personal credit card bills, lease a new Jaguar, and pay off a personal loan.
Considering that he raised all that money on the premise that it would be used for his campaign (and/or for other Democratic candidates), this is why federal prosecutors were able to charge Atkinson with wire fraud… And convince him to plead guilty to this charge.
Why doesn’t “tough on crime” usually apply to “white-collar crimes”?
Atkinson will formally be sentenced in July. Unless the judge decides to override prosecutors’ recommendation and “throw the book at him”, Atkinson’s sentence will probably be much closer to the 33 month prison stint and $249,900 recommendation than the 20 year maximum sentence.
Strangely enough, this is only slightly less than the 47 month sentence former 2016 Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort received for his conviction of tax fraud and bank fraud charges. Fortunately for both Atkinson and Manafort, these sorts of “white-collar” federal offenses don’t carry the kinds of long, brutal, “tough on crime” mandatory minimum sentences that other crimes, such as drug charges, do.
Unfortunately for the people who are convicted of such offenses, most often from working poor families and communities of color, they’re more likely to be subjected to mandatory minimum sentences at least five times the length of what Atkinson and Manafort will probably receive. While last year’s First Step Act does ease the mandatory minimum rules by expanding the “safety valve” judges can essentially use as loopholes to issue lighter sentences, along with expanding credits offenders can earn while incarcerated to obtain early release, it doesn’t actually repeal these mandatory minimums. And due to the First Step Act’s mandate that an electronic algorithm be used to decide who can use these earned credits, some criminal justice reform advocates fear the First Step Act may even worsen some of the racial and class inequities it’s supposed to fix.
Mercy, mercy me.
In one more ironic twist, Atkinson wanted to advance criminal justice reform legislation in the Nevada Legislature before his resignation. Meanwhile at the federal level, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act into law after his anti-reform, “tough on crime” Attorney General Jeff Sessions had already been sidelined from any position of influence within the administration. And even now, anti-reform forces continue to advance legislation at the state and federal levels to negate even the modest reform efforts that have succeeded in recent years.
It’s one thing for us to scratch our heads and wonder why Kelvin Atkinson may be out of federal custody some three years from now, and why Paul Manafort may be out of jail shortly after Atkinson is released. However it’s important for us to remember the much bigger thing and the much more important story here: While Atkinson, Manafort, and other “white-collar criminals” are in far better positions to receive mercy thanks to their heightened socioeconomic status, there are many more people in system who could really use some mercy, but are never afforded such.