Are Long Sentences for White Collar Criminals Justified?


Next Monday morning, L. Dennis Kozlowski, the former chief executive of Tyco International, will learn his fate. Kozlowski, who was convicted of grand larceny, falsifying business records, securities fraud and other charges, is to be sentenced in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan and, unless he is granted bail, could be whisked off to Rikers Island to be processed. He faces a prison sentence as long as 30 years. But the New York Times reports that while recent lengthy sentences for white-collar crimes have been hailed by some as desperately needed deterrents after a deluge of corporate scandals, the sentencing of Kozlowski, 58, comes at a time when a number of lawyers, including former prosecutors, are questioning whether such sentences are justified.

Bernard J. Ebbers, the former chairman of WorldCom who was convicted of masterminding an $11 billion accounting fraud that bankrupted the company, was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Because Ebbers is 63, some have contended that the sentence amounts to a life term. Likewise, John J. Rigas, the 80-year-old founder of Adelphia Communications, was sentenced to 15 years. “You have to ask yourself whether the proof in these cases warrants such a sentence,” said Otto G. Obermaier, a former United States attorney in Manhattan, who had been an aggressive prosecutor of white-collar crimes when he ran the office from 1989 to 1993. “Ebbers’s sentence moved the goal posts pretty far back. You can describe it as a pendulum switch, but it is an overreaction.”


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