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Sentencing panel to weigh economic crime penalties

 Associated Press
August 15, 2014
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The federal panel that sets sentencing policy announced Thursday that it plans in the coming year to consider changes to sentencing guidelines for some white-collar crimes.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which earlier this year reduced guideline ranges for drug crimes, unanimously approved its latest set of priorities. The top priority will be continuing to work with Congress on reducing the scope and severity of mandatory minimum penalties, but another goal will be evaluating the fairness of sentences for economic crimes like fraud, the commission said.

The panel had been reviewing data for several years, but plans to hear more from judges, victims and others to decide "whether there are ways the economic crime guidelines could work better," the commission's chairwoman, Patti Saris, a federal judge in Massachusetts, said in a statement.

Defense lawyers who long have sought the changes say a window to act opened once the sentencing commission cut sentencing guidelines for drug crimes, clearing a major priority from its agenda.

It's unclear what action the commission ultimately will take, especially given the public outrage at fraudsters who stole their clients' life savings and lingering anger over the damage inflicted by the 2008 financial crisis. But the discussion about tweaking sentences for economic crimes comes as some federal judges have chosen to ignore the existing guidelines in some cases and as the Justice Department, which has said it welcomes a review, looks for ways to cut costs in an overpopulated federal prison system.

Sentencing guidelines are advisory rather than mandatory, but judges still rely heavily on them for consistency's sake. Advocates arguing that white-collar sentencing guidelines are "mixed up and crazy" could weaken support for keeping them in place, said Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman, a sentencing law expert.

The commission's action to soften drug-crime guidelines is a signal that the time is ripe, defense lawyers say. The commission this year agreed to reduce guideline ranges across drug types and then apply that change retroactively to the current inmate population, a move that could permit tens of thousands of drug-dealing felons to seek an early release. The commission says no inmate would be freed early under the change unless a judge determined that the release would not jeopardize public safety.

Just as drug sentences historically have been determined by the amount of drugs involved, white-collar punishments typically are defined by the total financial loss caused by the crime. Advocates hope the commission's decision to lower sentencing guideline ranges for drug crimes, effectively de-emphasizing the significance of drug quantity, paves the way for a new sentencing scheme that removes some of the weight attached to economic loss.

A 2013 proposal from an American Bar Association task force would do exactly that, encouraging judges to place less emphasis on how much money was lost and more on a defendant's culpability. Under the proposal, judges would more scrupulously weigh less-quantifiable factors, including motive, the scheme's duration and sophistication, and whether the defendant actually financially benefited or merely intended to.

The current structure, lawyers say, means bit players in a large fraud risk getting socked with harsh sentences despite playing a minimal role.

"It's real easy to talk about 10, 15, 20 years, but when you realize just how much time you're talking about ... it's too much," said Washington defense lawyer Barry Boss, an ABA task force member.

No one is talking about leniency for imprisoned financier Bernie Madoff, who's serving a 150-year sentence for bilking thousands of people of nearly $20 billion, or fallen corporate titans whose greed drove their companies into the ground. But defense lawyers are calling for a sentencing structure that takes into account the broad continuum of economic crime and that better differentiates between, for example, a thief who steals a dollar each from a million people versus $1 million from one person.

Any ambitious proposal will encounter obstacles.

It's virtually impossible to muster the same public sympathy for white-collar criminals as for crack-cocaine defendants sentenced under old guidelines now seen as excessively harsh, which took a disproportionate toll on racial minorities. The drug-sentencing overhaul also was promoted as fiscally prudent, because drug offenders account for roughly half the federal prison population. Tea party conservatives and liberal groups united behind the change.

In comparison, the clamor for changing white-collar guidelines has been muted. The Justice Department, already criticized for its paucity of criminal prosecutions arising from the financial crisis, has said it's open to a review but has not championed dramatic change.

"I don't think there's a political will for really cutting back or retooling the guidelines," Columbia University law professor Daniel Richman said.

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  1. Your article is a good intro the recent amendments to Fed.R.Civ.P. For a much longer - though not necessarily better -- summary, counsel might want to read THE CHIEF UMPIRE IS CHANGING THE STRIKE ZONE, which I co-authored and which was just published in the January issue of THE VERDICT (the monthly publication of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association).

  2. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  3. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  4. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  5. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

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