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Judge asks whether Justice Dept is going too easy on Jan. 6 defendants

"Does the government, in agreeing to the petty offense in this case, have any concern about deterrence?" a judge asked about a Jan. 6 defendant.

More than 550 people have been charged as part of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, though a relatively small fraction of the group have been sentenced. Many of those whose cases have been adjudicated, however, have received relatively light sentences as a result of plea agreements.

It led a federal judge yesterday to ask whether prosecutors are going a too easy on the insurrectionist defendants -- especially in the area of financial restitution. The Washington Post reported:

A federal judge on Monday questioned why U.S. prosecutors are asking Capitol riot defendants to pay only $1.5 million in restitution while American taxpayers are paying more than $500 million to cover the costs of the Jan. 6 attack by a pro-Trump mob. Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell of Washington challenged the toughness of the Justice Department's stance in a plea hearing for a Colorado Springs man who admitted to one of four nonviolent misdemeanor counts of picketing in the U.S. Capitol.

Evidently, the judge did the math: the U.S. attorney's office is seeking $2,000 in each felony case and $500 in each misdemeanor case, while at the same time, U.S. taxpayers are covering the costs of the pro-Trump mob's attack, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

As Politico noted, Howell added that the meager restitution amount being sought was "a little bit surprising" given the government's usual approach to such issues.

But this isn't solely about financial considerations.

As the Post reported last week, some federal judges have challenged "prosecutors' acceptance of misdemeanor plea deals for individuals involved in 'terrorizing members of Congress,' forcing the evacuation of lawmakers and violence that authorities have led to several deaths and assaults on nearly 140 police officers."

In accepting a plea deal two weeks ago, Howell -- the same judge with questions about monetary restitution yesterday -- asked prosecutors in a plea deal, "Does the government, in agreeing to the petty offense in this case, have any concern about deterrence?"

It's a reasonable question. In the immediate aftermath of the insurrectionist violence, it was hard not to notice the apparent criminals simply walking away from Capitol Hill -- not in handcuffs, but free as a bird.

In the days and weeks that followed, hundreds of the mob's members were tracked down and arrested, which mattered not only as a matter of justice, but also to send a signal to the public at large: those who participate in an attack against the U.S. Capitol should expect legal consequences for their actions. Those thinking about similar acts in the future need to understand that they'll have to pay a price for their crimes, too.

But that deterrent effect is weakened when those who participated in the Jan. 6 assault receive plea deals, modest fines, and light sentences.