WASHINGTON – 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.
After Trump's impeachment by the House resulted in an acquittal by the Senate, these criminal cases are one possible route for justice.
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.
"The greatest country in the world, the most powerful country in the world, was turned on its head for a very scary period of time. And that is not a small matter," said Lenese Herbert, who used to work as a federal prosecutor in Washington.