The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted this month to amend the guidelines that federal judges use when sentencing people who commit economic crimes. The Huffington Post reports that few are happy with those changes. Sentencing reform advocates say they don’t go far enough to fix draconian sentences, while the U.S. Department of Justice contends that the changes could give some white-collar criminals a new avenue for unfair leniency. Recommended sentences for economic crimes under the current rules so severe, they are no longer taken seriously, some prosecutors and judges suggest. Those guidelines rely on complicated calculations involving criminal gain and inflicted losses that spit out sentences that can appear inconsistent or absurd. In 2008, a federal judge gave a 72-year-old man a 330-year term for an investment scam.
The sentencing panel has approved new guidelines that will go into effect in November unless Congress disagrees. Commission chair Judge Patti Saris, contends that the economic crime guidelines are not broken, but she has acknowledged that they could provide more clarity on what to do in the cases of certain first-time, low-level offenders. The changes aim to make punishments fairer by giving greater weight to a criminal’s role and his or her intent. So, for example, a receptionist who was aware of a massive kickback scheme in her office, but didn’t share the profits, might get a lighter penalty than those behind the scheme. Another change would allow for harsher penalties for criminals who substantially harm a few people, rather than focusing on the sheer number of victims. So a sentence might be greater for a low-life who stripped a grandmother of her savings, rather than a bank executive who swindled a dollar each from thousands of people.