The 50-year prison term given to one-time business mogul Thomas Petters is the latest in a string of harsh punishments imposed on defendants convicted of orchestrating frauds, Wayne State University law Prof. Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor, writes in the New York Times. Twenty years ago, a sentence of more than five years for a white-collar offender was rare, and most sentences were measured in months, not years. The sentence for Petters last week is similar in severity to the 150 years given to Bernard Madoff for defrauding investors of tens of billions of dollars in his vast Ponzi scheme, and it is the latest signal that many defendants, at least in high-profile cases, face prison terms that will amount to life behind bars.
Even in less notorious cases, the prison terms for financial crimes have been moving higher, raising questions whether sentences once reserved for violent criminals are appropriate for white-collar defendants. It is hard to justify sentences like the 50 years imposed on white-collar defendants on the need to protect society from future harm, Henning says. It is unlikely that someone like Petters would ever be in a position to defraud investors again, and he presented no physical threat. Whether other potential offenders will be deterred because of the sentence is also open to question, because many white-collar defendants often do not start out planning to defraud investors or customers, but pursue the fraud to avoid disclosing losses from poor business decisions. Courts often express a desire to send a message that financial crimes are deserving of the same significant punishment more commonly given to drug dealers and violent offenders because the harm is just as great.