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Could white collar crime be next in line for sentencing reform?

Earlier this year, new federal sentencing guidelines went into effect for people convicted of certain nonviolent drug crimes. Now, some defense lawyers and other advocates of prisoners’ rights are pushing for similar reforms in the sentencing of white collar crimes like embezzlement, tax fraud and insider trading.

The changes that have been suggested for the white collar crime sentencing guidelines would affect individuals charged with certain federal financial offenses. Many financial crimes can be prosecuted in either state or federal court, so people charged with these offenses in Missouri could be affected.

Generally speaking, sentencing guidelines for federal crimes have a reputation for being quite tough. Because the existing guidelines focus largely on the dollar amount involved in a financial offense, and less on other circumstances, people often face harsh consequences for conviction even if they played only an incidental role in the actual crime. In some cases, the same penalties can apply even if a person intended to commit a white collar crime but never actually carried the plan through to completion.

People who are pushing for the reforms say that a better approach to sentencing white collar crimes would be to focus more on the other circumstances that may be involved in a case, such as the complexity of a financial scheme and how long it went on, as well as whether a crime was actually completed.

These proposed changes would mirror similar reforms in the drug sentencing guidelines, which once focused heavily on the quantity of drugs involved. Although quantity is still a factor in those cases, the sentencing guidelines now also account for other important factors such as whether anyone was hurt or killed in the carrying out of the offense.

Source: Bloomberg Businessweek, "Sentencing changes sought for business crimes," Eric Tucker (Associated Press), Aug. 13, 2014

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