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The case for more lenient white collar crime sentencing

prisonfences-t.JPGShould penalties for white collar criminals be lightened?

This idea will be unpopular with some people, who believe that white collar criminals are treated more gently than other criminals. Many people picture privileged minimum security penal campuses, where prisoners play lots of tennis.

A false sterotype

First of all, that is not a true picture. I have been to federal penitentiaries and I can tell you that no one is having a good time there. Prison is prison, the opposite of freedom, and no one wants to be there.

Second, consider how the current system is failing. The War on Drugs, the campaign against Medicare fraud, and other criminal matters in the headlines have led to harsh sentencing guidelines.

A first offense for manufacturing, distributing, or possessing a significant amount of illegal drugs, with intent to distribute, and that causes the death or serious injury to a person, results in a minimum sentence of 20 years.

While the crime is a serious one, that minimum 20 years in prison has a perverse, unintended effect. Defendants with resources can afford to fight the charges in court. Defendants with fewer resources are up the creek - they plead guilty, even if they did not commit the crime, or if an experienced lawyer could have won the case or seriously reduced the charges.

The problem with plea bargains

This is why 97 percent of federal cases end in guilty pleas. It is the cheap way to reduce time in prison.

As a consequence, we have prisons packed to the gills with drug offenders who could not afford to seek competent defense. And these people, many of them young, spend years there, "rehabilitating."

By lightening up on the sentencing end, more cases would go to trial, and that is a good thing. Trials give defendants a chance to make their case, to present facts that can't emerge in a guilty plea.

A shot at justice

Fewer innocent people would spend large parts of their lives behind bars - because they have a fighting chance to defend themselves.

That's the case for more lenient sentencing in federal cases: more affordable defense, shorter sentences, fewer innocent people giving up and pleading guilty, and a prison system with an easier population to manage.

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