Justice Department’s Stance May Hinder Sentencing Reform

Current sentencing guidelines for white-collar crimes described as “hocus pocus”

For proponents of reforming federal sentencing guidelines for white-collar crimes, recent steps by the U.S. Department of Justice are bound to be disappointing. According to Reuters, the Justice Department has come out against the reforms, which would likely have led to reduced sentences for many white-collar crimes, such as fraud. Critics of the current sentencing guidelines say there is little logic behind them and that they have resulted in disproportionately long sentences for many offenders. They have accused the Justice Department of playing to public opinion rather than to rational policy making.

“Hocus pocus”

According to the New York Times, recommended sentences for economic crimes are largely based on how much money was gained by the perpetrator and how much money any victims of the offense lost. According to one judge, the emphasis on gains and loses is illogical and he describes the current guidelines as “hocus pocus” since they fail to focus on an offender’s culpability in the commission of a crime.

The problem with focusing on losses is that when large sums of money are involved, such as at publicly traded corporations, decades-long sentences can result that don’t always appear to fit the crime. For example, if a CEO is convicted of accounting fraud that was meant to make a company appear more attractive to investors than it actually was, he could face a long prison sentence because the fraud, when exposed, resulted in investors of the company losing potentially millions of dollars. Yet, the fact that the CEO himself is unlikely to have personally profited from the fraud means little in terms of sentencing.

Focus on culpability

To combat the sometimes disproportionate or inconsistent sentences handed down in white-collar crime cases, a federal panel recently recommended shifting the focus away from gains and losses and towards culpability. In cases involving executives, the commission also recommended focusing more on the executive’s gain rather than on the loss to investors.

Recently, however, the Department of Justice told the U.S. Sentencing Commission that it was against sentencing reform for most white-collar crimes. The Justice Department cited “overwhelming societal consensus” in coming out against the reforms, which led many critics to accuse the department of playing to public opinion rather than of striving to create sentencing guidelines that actually fit the crime.

White-collar defense

As the above article shows, punishments for fraud and other white-collar crimes can be extreme. Being charged with such an offense is very serious and could result in prison, fines, and other punitive actions.

Hiring a defense attorney who has a proven track record defending against allegations of white-collar crime should be a defendant’s first step. Such an attorney will be able to fight diligently and aggressively for his client’s rights and help mitigate whatever damage may arise as the result of such serious allegations.

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