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US Sentencing Commission Set to Revise White-Collar Crime Sentences

Earlier this year the US Sentencing Commission reduced guideline ranges for nonviolent drug crimes. This past Thursday, the federal panel unanimously approved its latest set of priorities: white-collar crime sentences. The panel revealed that it is considering changes to guidelines for some white-collar crimes. So what type of differences can we expect? The panel revealed that the top priority will be working with Congress on reducing the scope of mandatory minimum penalties, but another goal will be measuring the fairness of sentences for fraud and other economic crimes.

The federal panel has been reviewing data for several years but still plans on hearing more from judges, victims, and others to decide whether there are ways the economic crime guidelines could work better. Defense lawyers have been seeking these types of changes for a long time. These lawyers saw an open window when the sentencing commission cut sentencing guidelines for drug crimes, which cleared a major priority from its agenda.

The specifics about the actions and changes the commission will make are unclear at this point. One factor that weighs heavily on the commission is 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.

Although the sentencing guidelines are advisory rather than mandatory, most judges still rely on them heavily 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 law expert.

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. A proposal from an American Bar Association task force in 2013 encourages judges to place less emphasis on the money lost and more on a defendant's culpability. The federal panel is continuously meeting and will hopefully have more updates on the prospective changes in white-collar crime sentences soon.

Source: Boston Globe, Sentencing panel to rethink economic crime penalties, Eric Tucker, August 15, 2014.

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