WASHINGTON — The federal panel that sets sentencing policy eased penalties this year for potentially tens of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders. Now, defense lawyers and prisoner advocates are pushing for similar treatment for a different category of defendants: swindlers, embezzlers, insider traders and other white-collar criminals.
Lawyers who have long sought the changes say a window to act opened once the U.S. Sentencing Commission cleared a major priority from its agenda by cutting sentencing guideline ranges for drug crimes. The commission, which meets today to vote on priorities for the coming year, has expressed interest in examining punishments for white-collar crime. And the Justice Department, though not advocating wholesale changes, has said it welcomes a review.
It's unclear what action the commission 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 as too stiff for some cases and as the Justice Department 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. The current structure, lawyers say, means bit players in a large fraud risk getting socked with harsh sentences despite playing a minimal role.
"It's real easy to talk about 10, 15, 20 years, but when you realize just how much time you're talking about … it's too much," said Washington defense lawyer Barry Boss, an ABA task force member.