The problem with white collar crime sentencing guidelines

Today, former investment financier Bernie Madoff is a household name thanks to extensive media coverage of the financial crisis that hit America in 2008. Reports indicate that Madoff swindled individuals out of roughly $20 billion. He is now serving a 150 year prison sentence for the crimes he committed.

Many will likely agree that Madoff's prison sentence was justified. But all too often, many white collar offenders handed down such draconian sentences are not like Bernie Madoff.

Large transactions often involve many different players and it's seemingly the "little fish" who pay the price. Many white collar offenders with minimal involvement are handed down harsh prison sentences simply because of the amount of money involved in the entire transaction.

Current sentencing structures are a big reason why. Amid the Wall Street crisis several years ago, prison sentences for economic crimes have only gotten more severe.

But some hope to change this. Criminal defense advocates are asking the U.S. Sentencing Commission to consider changing the current sentencing guidelines for white collar offenses.

Changing sentencing structures for white collar offenses

Criminal law advocates have insisted on such change for years, but a big motive behind the push now is due in part to recent changes to the sentencing guidelines for low-level drug offenders. The U.S. Sentencing Commission recently agreed to reduce penalties for nonviolent drug offenders. Many now hope that the Commission will focus their attention on restructuring sentencing guidelines for white collar offenses.

Instead of handing down sentences based primarily on economic loss, advocates argue that prison time for those convicted of white collar offenses should be assessed based on individual's overall involvement in the crime. According to some criminal defense advocates, a prison sentence for a white collar crime should differentiate between "thieves who steal a dollar each from a million people versus $1 million from one person." Motive and other noneconomic factors should be considered as well.

Some judges already disregard guidelines because they are too strict. A judge from the Eastern District of New York declared that the recommendations imposed amid the 2008 economic calamity are no excuse for "black stain on common sense."

It remains to be seen what the U.S. Sentencing Commission will actually do in the upcoming year. The Commission has expressed interest in reviewing such sentences and the U.S. Justice Department has stated that it is open to review as well.

The last time the Commission altered economic crime sentences was over 10 years ago.

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