Trump-Style West Virginia Candidate Don Blankenship: Injustice and Inequality In Their Ugliest Form

Blankenship’s crime led to 29 deaths. He was punished far less than people who commit ordinary street crimes

Don Blankenship, a coal baron who casually uses racist language with reporters, appears to lead in the polls just ahead of Tuesday's West Virginia Senate primary. It's entirely possible he'll be the Republican opponent to Sen. Joe Manchin, one of this year's most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, in November. Blankenship, the former chairman and CEO of Massey Energy, is running a Donald Trump-like campaign fueled by racial resentment. (Even if the president has officially urged West Virginia Republicans to support other candidates, no doubt fearing a repeat of the Roy Moore disaster in Alabama.)

Blankenship's popularity suggests -- if this weren't already clear -- that the "populism" that got Trump elected has little to do with economic anxiety or preserving working class jobs. After all, Blankenship is still on parole after serving a one-year prison sentence for the negligence that led to the deaths of 29 coal miners in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in Raleigh County, West Virginia, just over eight years ago.

Blankenship was convicted in 2016 of conspiring to violate federal safety standards, a misdemeanor that carried a maximum sentence of one year's imprisonment, which he served. He showed no repentance for his crime, denying at his sentencing hearing that he'd done anything wrong or illegal. Many believe he is running for Senate specifically to get revenge on Manchin, the current senator, who was governor of West Virginia at the time of the Upper Big Branch disaster.

This entire situation isn't just an illustration of how bizarre Republican politics have become in the age of Trump, however. Blankenship's story is also a perfect illustration of the racial and economic inequalities built into the American criminal justice system.

"The United States in effect operates two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and people of color," explains a report the Sentencing Project created for the United Nations in March. These disparities, the group argues, mean that "the United States is in violation of its obligations under Article 2 and Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to ensure that all its residents — regardless of race — are treated equally under the law."

"The fact that African-Americans and Latinos are overrepresented in the prison population, especially for lower level crimes, has to do with differences in criminal justice policies and enforcement decisions," Nazgol Ghandnoosh, one of the paper's authors, told Salon. “The racial disparities that are unwarranted in the criminal justice system have to do with bias in discretion, laws that have disparate impacts and policies that disadvantage poor people.”

Blankenship's case illustrates how this works. As the Sentencing Project report indicates, low-income people often have to rely on public defenders, who are underfunded and working with "excessively high caseloads." Blankenship, however, could afford top-quality legal representation, which was likely a big reason why he was able to get off with a misdemeanor conviction despite being charged with multiple felonies. As a rich man, Blankenship didn't have to worry about making bail. For many low-income people, however, bail costs are out of reach, causing many people to take unfair plea bargains in cases they might win if they were able to make it to trial.

Ghandnoosh noted that for ordinary prisoners without wealth or privilege, getting parole is extremely difficult.

"A critical part of the decision to release them, if a parole board is making that decision," Ghandnoosh said, is whether or not a prisoner has "taken responsibility for their crime." Failure to convince a parole board of genuine repentance can often keep people in prison for years longer. Blankenship, by contrast, remains "completely unrepentant and denies responsibility for what he did," which evidently hasn't impacted the swiftness with which he was able to return to society. 

Most people who are on parole or probation, as Blankenship is, can expect to get in serious legal trouble if they violate any other laws. In many cases, even a minor infraction can send them back to prison. But even though Blankenship likely broke campaign finance law by failing to submit a financial disclosure form, he has said that his probation officer shrugged off the offense as a "civil matter." Soon, Blankenship won't have to worry about even making those calls: His probationary period ends at midnight on Tuesday, by which time he may be a Republican senatorial nominee.

The case also highlights the vast differences between wealthy and marginalized people when it comes to life after prison.

"What really stands out for me is the fact that someone on parole supervision is running for this high office," Ghandnoosh said, "yet in that very state in West Virginia, about 7,000 people cannot vote in that election because they’re on parole supervision." Such a disparity "speaks volumes about how privilege navigates not just your experience with the criminal justice system, but your opportunities afterwards," she concluded.

One in seven people currently in prison in the United States is expected to die there, either because they received life sentences or because their sentences are so long they won't live long enough to be released or paroled. To be clear, most such prisoners were convicted of murder or other serious violent crimes — although not all — but Ghandnoosh said that such long sentences should still trouble people.

“That kind of sentencing completely skews our sense of what is an appropriate punishment for a lower-level offense," she argued. "Five years for a drug crime doesn’t seem like much when we have so many people serving a life sentence for homicide or another serious crime.”

Perhaps the primary reason that Blankenship served only a year in prison is that he was convicted of what is perceived as a white-collar crime. Such offenses often come with lighter sentences because they aren't put in the same category as street crimes. Of course, since Massey Energy's negligence led to the deaths of 29 dead bodies on his hands, Blankenship's actions arguably had far worse consequences than the violent crimes of most murderers sitting in prison right now.

Ghandnoosh, however, believes that the solution to this problem is not by "making sure that affluent whites are being over-punished to the same extent as low-income people of color." Instead, she suggested, we should "reconsider sentences for everybody, to make sure that everybody has a fair outcome rather than bring everybody down to the worst possible outcome."

It's politically popular at the moment to talk about sentencing for nonviolent offenses, which most criminal justice advocates agree is badly needed. But Ghandnoosh argues that sentences for all sorts of crime — including at least some categories of homicide — should come down, if only because the lengthy sentences given to convicted murderers have such a distorting effect on what is deemed appropriate punishment for other crimes.

Even in the age of sentencing reform as a bipartisan issue, it's reasonable to conclude that serving one year for corporate negligence that killed 29 men is far too light a punishment. Blankenship's privilege has allowed him to skate by with little real accountability — believe it or not, Republicans in West Virginia tried to weaken mine-safety regulations after his conviction. So it perhaps it should be no surprise if this ex-con criminal becomes the latest controversial Republican Senate nominee.

 

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Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte.