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Fed. commission considers lesser sentences for financial crimes

White-collar crime has received a lot of media attention in recent years, particularly in the wake of the Great Recession. In an article we wrote near the beginning of the year, we shared predictions that white-collar crime arrests and prosecutions would steadily continue through 2014 and perhaps even increase compared to 2013.

As they have done in recent years, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice will continue to focus on two types of white-collar crime in particular: Insider trading and accounting fraud.

Even as rates of arrest and prosecution are holding steady and perhaps increasing, sentences for convicted offenders might be heading in the other direction. Earlier this month, it was reported that the U.S. Sentencing Commission is considering easing sentencing guidelines for individuals convicted of certain financial crimes.

One of the problems with current policies is that sentences are often based on the total financial losses associated with a crime. This isn't necessarily a reliable correlation. Certain fraud cases involve players at many different levels, and the current guidelines sometimes result in low-level players receiving disproportionately harsh sentences.

So how should judges determine appropriate sentences for convicted white-collar criminals? Many legal experts have their own opinions, including a task force for the American Bar Association. In a 2013 proposal, the task force noted that white-collar crime sentences should be based on:

  • The defendant's motives
  • How sophisticated the scheme was
  • How long the scheme lasted
  • Whether or not the defendant actually profited from the crime

It is unclear which specific proposals the Sentencing Commission will consider, or what the timeline will be. However, the fact that such changes are being considered at all could be a sign that the United States is slowly adopting a more rational and level-headed approach to crime and punishment.

Please feel free to read our article on white-collar crime, entitled "White collar crime arrests likely to continue in 2014."

Source: Bloomberg Businessweek, "Lighter sentences sought for some business crimes," Eric Tucker, Aug. 13, 2014

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