U.S. Sentencing Commission prioritizes rethinking white collar sentences

With a great deal of fanfare, earlier this year the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce the sentencing guidelines for drug offenders convicted of federal crimes. Later, the Sentencing Commission extended the guidelines reduction to apply retroactively, which will ultimately allow many drug offenders already in prison to petition for an earlier release date.

The move to lower drug sentencing guidelines was motivated in part by the fact that the federal prison system has become a bloated drag on the government's budget, and in part because of issues of fairness. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as of Sept. 4, 2014, the federal prison population came in at 215,103 inmates.

The annual budget of the Federal Bureau of Prisons stands at more than $6 billion, up by more than $2 billion from ten years ago. Meanwhile, studies have proliferated suggesting that higher incarceration rates do not in fact lead to lower crime rates, and critics have questioned the fundamental fairness of sentences that can span decades for nonviolent offenses.

Considering more widespread acceptance of marijuana and better public understanding of the challenges imposed by onerous federal sentences, perhaps it is not surprising that the vote to lower sentencing guidelines for drug crimes met with little resistance. But now, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has indicated that it may be pursuing lighter sentences for another category of offenses: federal white collar crime.

Outrage over securities fraud, real estate fraud, business fraud, healthcare fraud and other types of white collar offenses that are federally prosecuted began to simmer after several high profile scandals in the early 2000s, and continued in the aftermath of the financial crisis. But, the Sentencing Commission has shown indications that they are hopeful societal attitudes have now advanced to the point of favoring a more nuanced approach to white collar sentencing.

On August 14, the Sentencing Commission voted on the coming year's priorities, and expressed interest in the possibility of examining lower sentencing guidelines for white collar offenses. Indeed, white collar offenders are typically nonviolent and have very little risk of reoffending. Furthermore, in 2013, an American Bar Association task force recommended that a new white collar sentencing scheme that focused more on the culpability of a defendant than the amount of economic loss (which is the current focus) would result in fairer outcomes.

Will the Sentencing Commission soon usher in lighter sentencing guidelines for white collar offenders? Only time will tell. But what is certain is that if you are being charged with a federal white collar crime, you will need legal help to do everything you can to avoid a lengthy prison sentence. Talk to a criminal defense attorney experienced in federal cases to learn more about defending against white collar charges.