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White collar defendants may receive more lenient sentences

Recently, a federal appeals court reversed a lower court's lenient sentence for conspiracy and money laundering of a chief executive of an Ohio technology firm that collapsed in 2003 due to alleged fraud. This sentence is evidence that defendants convicted of white collar felonies may receive more lenient treatment in the legal system than those convicted of other crimes. The judge in the case received letters of support from those who knew the defendant, and imposed a mere seven-day sentence for the crime of fraud, despite the fact that sentencing guidelines mandate an 8-10 year sentence based on the $18 million loss to the company's shareholders due to the fraud. The appeals court struck down the sentence, stating that the judge abused her discretion by taking into account factors that were not allowed in imposing sentences.

An underlying factor in the alleged leniency afforded to white collar criminals is that unlike many other criminal defendants, they generally pose no threat to society and are able to lead productive lives after committing the offense. For this reason, courts are allowed some flexibility in imposing sentences, thanks to the Supreme Court's 2005 United States v. Booker decision which stated that mandatory minimum sentences were only advisory and did not need to be applied rigidly.

However, the basic fairness of this arrangement is questionable at best. Often, defendants who have committed felonies such as fraud and insider trading are given softer sentences due to letters of support from high-profile friends and business associates. For example, one executive received a sentence of two years instead of the eight-to ten year sentence sought by the state due to letters in support of his character from high-profile figures such as Bill Gates and Kofi Annan. By contrast, defendants who did not receive letters of support received much harsher sentences.

Regardless of the fairness of the sentences, the basic fact remains that any defendant accused of a white collar crime such as insider trading or money laundering is entitled to a vigorous criminal defense and a presumption of innocence until guilt is proven beyond any reasonable doubt. They are entitled to challenge the admissibility of evidence, question witnesses, and take other measures to fight for their freedom from incarceration.

Source: The New York Times, "The Challenge of Sentencing White-Collar Defendants," Peter J. Henning, Feb. 25, 2013.

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