U.S. commission reviews white-collar sentences

Tue Sep 17, 2013 6:57pm EDT
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By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As the U.S. government remains under pressure to hold individuals accountable for the financial crisis, a federal commission is launching a review that could actually reduce sentences for white-collar criminals.

Those pushing for lighter sentences for white-collar offenses such as securities, healthcare and mortgage fraud include not only the American Bar Association, the nation's largest trade group for lawyers, but also a growing number of federal judges.

The judges' position could have particular weight, since they are the ones who turn to the advisory guidelines in imposing sentences.

Under the guidelines, first adopted in 1987, judges calculate sentences by assigning points for the seriousness of the offense, the defendant's criminal history and, for white-collar crimes, a complicated 16-level table based on the resulting financial loss.

Critics argue that financial losses, which can easily rise to hundreds of millions of dollars in crimes like securities fraud, have grown to dwarf the other factors in the calculation, leading to outsize sentences.

Notable sentences in securities fraud cases include former Enron Corp Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling, who in June received a reduced term of 14 years in prison; former WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers, who in 2005 was sentenced to 25 years in prison; and disbarred New York lawyer Marc Dreier, who was sentenced to 20 years in 2009. Insider-trading sentences are covered by a different section of the guidelines.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency of the federal judiciary that establishes sentencing policies, has said revising guidelines for economic crimes is a priority. It is holding a two-day fact-gathering meeting in New York this week.

The commission typically sends any amendments to the guidelines to Congress each May. If Congress doesn't act, they become effective that November.   Continued...

Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling (L) and attorney Daniel Petrocelli cross the street as they arrive at the Federal court in Houston April 13, 2006. REUTERS/Richard Carson