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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. The ADA acts as a tax upon all for the benefit of a few. And, most importantly, the many have no individual say in whether they pay the tax. Those with handicaps suffered in military service should get a pass, but those who are handicapped by accident or birth do NOT deserve that pass. The drivel about "equal access" is spurious because the handicapped HAVE equal access, they just can't effectively use it. That is their problem, not society's. The burden to remediate should be that of those who seek the benefit of some social, constructional, or dimensional change, NOT society generally. Everybody wants to socialize the costs and concentrate the benefits of government intrusion so that they benefit and largely avoid the costs. This simply maintains the constant push to the slop trough, and explains, in part, why the nation is 20 trillion dollars in the hole.

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  3. Indianapolis Bar Association President John Trimble and I are on the same page, but it is a very large page with plenty of room for others to join us. As my final Res Gestae article will express in more detail in a few days, the Great Recession hastened a fundamental and permanent sea change for the global legal service profession. Every state bar is facing the same existential questions that thrust the medical profession into national healthcare reform debates. The bench, bar, and law schools must comprehensively reconsider how we define the practice of law and what it means to access justice. If the three principals of the legal service profession do not recast the vision of their roles and responsibilities soon, the marketplace will dictate those roles and responsibilities without regard for the public interests that the legal profession professes to serve.

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