There are several theories about the proper punishment for crime. Some hold that punishment is intended to rehabilitate a person with criminal tendencies. Other theories suggest that the purpose is to deter other people from committing crime, or to gain retribution against those who have committed illegal acts. Some of these theories hold up better than others when considering their application to white collar crimes.
Not that long ago, there was a considerable groundswell of public opinion against white collar criminals. People believed that sentences were too lenient and that more needed to be done to punish these crimes. Perhaps in response to this, courts began handing out record-shattering sentences for fraud and other white collar crimes. It is fair to question if this was an appropriate response and to question whether the pendulum has swung too far in that direction.
If there is little to no chance a person will again commit the crime he or she is convicted of, the theory of rehabilitation would dictate little to no punishment. When a crime hurts a large number of people, but hurts them very slightly, is it proper to enact harsh penalties? Is that a proper application of retribution?
The Federal Appeals Court recently held that a district judge abused her discretion in handing down a sentence in a white collar crime case. The holding state that the judge considered factors that were not permissible. Federal sentencing guidelines are discretionary, according to The Supreme Court. Judges have discretion, but they are still required to determine a reasonable punishment.
Source: DealBook, "The Challenge of Sentencing White-Collar Defendants," by Peter J. Henning, 25 February 2013