Is It Worth It To Risk Court?
Before Bernie Madoff, white collar crime drifted high above the clouds of public consciousness. Pyramid and ponzi schemes occurred, but ruffled few feathers. Most people simply had no reason, and lacked the desire, to take the time to understand them.
The Madoff scandal came at an especially sensitive time for the country. The recession had cost millions their jobs. Businesses were failing. Money was tight. The news that a wealthy New York businessman had taken thousands of investors for billions of dollars came at a time when the public was ready to lay blame.
Ponzi and pyramid schemes became hot words and white collar crime was given a face - both in Madoff and the people who suffered because of him. For the public, it was a face to hate and one to sympathize with.
Today, those charged with white collar crimes come up against almost as much negativity as those accused of sex and drug-related crimes. Before anyone accused of such crimes even has the opportunity to mount a defense, they've been found guilty in the court of public opinion.
Over the past year, litigators have sought harsher penalties and judges and juries have proved themselves more than willing to put people away for decades. Madoff's 150 year sentence set a precedent for white collar crime trials and it's one that leaves almost no chance for those indicted on charges of fraud and embezzlement.
For example, in December, three individuals from Sarasota, Florida were indicted by a federal grand jury on 18 felony counts each. If prosecuted by federal litigators, the accused may face anywhere between 10 and 20 years - per felony count.
Also of note is the fact that, if convicted on the federal level, an individual has no chance of parole. For two of the Floridians charged, indictments on all counts would equal more than 200 years, each.
In the face of these harsh sentences, many of those charged with white collar crimes choose to plea bargain and forgo their constitutional right to trial. It simply isn't worth the risk of a 100-year plus sentence. Even some of those who have a good chance of beating the charges decide that it's better to make a deal.
A plea bargain is a guaranteed sentence, while going to trial could mean an acquittal or it could be a defendant's last act as a free person.
This isn't how the system is supposed to work. Every U.S. citizen is entitled to the presumption of innocence until the prosecution proves otherwise. The burden of proof resting with the prosecution is heavy, and rightfully so. A federal sentence of 200 years without parole promises permanent incarceration.
With the deck stacked so high against them, many accused of white collar crimes such as fraud or embezzlement make a plea bargain for a reduced sentence instead of forcing the prosecution to prove that they deserve any sentence in the first place. Preemptively negative public opinion and unleashed aggression in sentencing is too much of a deterrent.
For those charged with fraud, it's essential to retain an experienced white collar crime attorney immediately. With so much stacked against you, it's important to have someone standing up for your rights from the start.