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Lighter sentences sought for some business crimes

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The federal panel that sets sentencing policy eased penalties this year for potentially tens of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders. Now, defense lawyers and prisoner advocates are pushing for similar treatment for a different category of defendants: swindlers, embezzlers, insider traders and other white-collar criminals.

Lawyers who have long sought the changes say a window to act opened once the U.S. Sentencing Commission cleared a major priority from its agenda by cutting sentencing guideline ranges for drug crimes. The commission, which meets Thursday to vote on priorities for the coming year, already has expressed interest in examining punishments for white-collar crime. And the Justice Department, though not advocating wholesale changes, has said it welcomes a review.

It's unclear what action the commission 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 as too stiff for some cases and as the Justice Department 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.

Just as drug sentences have historically been determined by the amount of drugs involved, white-collar punishments are typically 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 seeking 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, thieves who steal 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," said Columbia University law professor Daniel Richman.

The commission's last major change to the economic crime guidelines came more than a decade ago, when it stiffened penalties. But as fraud sentences have increased, some judges have deviated from the guidelines to impose terms far more lenient than the government's recommendations. One judge, Frederic Block of the Eastern District of New York, cautioned in 2008 that the guidelines should not be a "black stain on common sense."

When some adhere to the guidelines but others don't, critics say, the result can be as haphazard as if guidelines didn't exist at all.

In Manhattan, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, an outspoken critic of the guidelines, in 2012 sentenced former Goldman Sachs director Rajat Gupta to two years in prison on insider-trading changes, about one-fifth the government's recommended sentence. And in Florida, Judge James S. Moody Jr. sentenced a group of health care executives in May to sentences so lenient that he acknowledged prosecutors might think "that I've lost my mind."

A former Wall Street trader convicted of abusing a government bailout program could have received a double-digit sentence under the guidelines but got two years instead. The Connecticut judge who imposed the sentence last month, Janet C. Hall, called the guidelines unhelpful "because the loss aspect of the crime, in effect, overwhelms all the other aspects."

Washington lawyer Barry Pollack, an officer of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said while the commission could let the guidelines stand, he hopes for some movement.

"I think the real question is will they take the lesser and easier step of simply reducing sentences across the board, or will they use this as an opportunity to revisit the entire philosophy behind the white-collar sentencing guidelines," he said. "I think only time will tell on that."

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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