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Sentencing panel to weigh economic crime penalties

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 14, 2014 at 8:48 pm •  Published: August 14, 2014
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal panel that sets sentencing policy announced Thursday that it plans in the coming year to consider changes to sentencing guidelines for some white-collar crimes.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which earlier this year reduced guideline ranges for drug crimes, unanimously approved its latest set of priorities. The top priority will be continuing to work with Congress on reducing the scope and severity of mandatory minimum penalties, but another goal will be evaluating the fairness of sentences for economic crimes like fraud, the commission said.

The panel had been reviewing data for several years, but plans to hear more from judges, victims and others to decide "whether there are ways the economic crime guidelines could work better," the commission's chairwoman, Patti Saris, a federal judge in Massachusetts, said in a statement.

Defense lawyers who long have sought the changes say a window to act opened once the sentencing commission cut sentencing guidelines for drug crimes, clearing a major priority from its agenda.

It's unclear what action the commission ultimately will take, especially given the public outrage at fraudsters who stole their clients' life savings and lingering anger over the damage inflicted by the 2008 financial crisis. But the discussion about tweaking sentences for economic crimes comes as some federal judges have chosen to ignore the existing guidelines in some cases and as the Justice Department, which has said it welcomes a review, looks for ways to cut costs in an overpopulated federal prison system.

Sentencing guidelines are advisory rather than mandatory, but judges still rely heavily on them for consistency's sake. Advocates arguing that white-collar sentencing guidelines are "mixed up and crazy" could weaken support for keeping them in place, said Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman, a sentencing law expert.

The commission's action to soften drug-crime guidelines is a signal that the time is ripe, defense lawyers say. The commission this year agreed to reduce guideline ranges across drug types and then apply that change retroactively to the current inmate population, a move that could permit tens of thousands of drug-dealing felons to seek an early release. The commission says no inmate would be freed early under the change unless a judge determined that the release would not jeopardize public safety.

Just as drug sentences historically have been determined by the amount of drugs involved, white-collar punishments typically are defined by the total financial loss caused by the crime. Advocates hope the commission's decision to lower sentencing guideline ranges for drug crimes, effectively de-emphasizing the significance of drug quantity, paves the way for a new sentencing scheme that removes some of the weight attached to economic loss.

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