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When it comes to white collar crimes, does the punishment fit the crime?

When it comes to crime and the criminal justice system, there's a popular-held belief that the punishment should fit the crime. While one could argue there are no victimless crimes, when it comes to so-called white collar crimes there are certainly wide variances when it comes to severity, impact and intent.

Some argue current guidelines established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission with respect to white collar crimes sentences, are often overly punitive and rigid. For example, there is a major difference between an individual who played a bit role in a tax evasion scheme that nets $2 million and an individual who is deemed the mastermind behind a similar scheme which robs one wealthy investors of the same amount.

However, current sentencing guidelines fail to take an individual's role, knowledge or intent into consideration. Instead, sentencing guidelines are based on the total financial loss associated with the criminal activity. It's possible, therefore, that an individual who had little to no knowledge of the larger plan and was paid $5,000 for their role in a $10 million dollar complex wire fraud operation could spend 10 or more years in prison.

Even though sentencing guildelines are not mandatory, many judges use and abide by them. Those that don't, however, often stray extremely far from recommended sentences and speak to the belief that, for most white collar crimes, prison is not the answer.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission recently took steps to amend mandatory sentencing guildelines with regard to nonviolent drug crimes. The move was seen as encouraging to some who also want to see changes with regard to white collar crime sentencing guidelines. For now, however, individuals convicted of mail fraud, money laundering or tax evasion face stiff penalties, including a lengthy prison sentence.

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

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