March 12, 2015 / 10:48 PM / 2 years ago

Justice Department objects to white-collar sentencing reforms

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department has come out broadly against a series of proposals from a federal panel that would cut prison time for white-collar criminals.

The department's views, revealed on Thursday at a hearing of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, marked a potential setback for the proposals, which defense lawyers had already criticized for being too moderate.

In a letter released at the meeting, the department objected to a proposal to adjust victim losses for inflation for the first time since 1987. Losses directly influence recommended prison term lengths, and the move would reduce fraud sentences by 26 percent on average.

"It seems a somewhat odd thing to do," Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, said at the hearing.

The Justice Department also objected to a proposal to shift the emphasis in calculating sentences for stock fraud cases to financial gains instead of investor losses, a change that could reduce the amount of prison time some executives would face.

The department's position came amid continuing debate over whether changes to the guidelines are necessary to address what even some judges have said are overly harsh recommended punishments for fraud offenders.

Fraud offenses constitute the third largest type of federal crime in America, behind only immigration and drugs cases. Over the last decade, average prison sentences for fraud have lengthened three-fold, the commission said.

But after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the guidelines advisory in 2005, judges increasingly gave shorter terms than what the commission recommended. In 2012, the average fraud sentence was 22 months, compared to the 29-month minimum recommended, the commission said.

Critics say the data shows many judges view the guidelines as overly-driven by victim losses, at times resulting in potential life sentences in cases like stock frauds with high-dollar amounts.

The commission's proposals, released in January, were viewed as too moderate by groups like the American Bar Association, which had pushed for broader revision de-emphasizing the influence losses have not just in cases involving the stock market but also for other frauds, such as in mortgages and healthcare.

Still, the commission said its proposal to adjust the loss calculations for inflation would itself reduce sentence lengths.

The Justice Department said any reduction would be contrary to "overwhelming societal consensus." Several commissioners, though, appeared skeptical of the department's position.

"I found it singularly unpersuasive," Circuit Judge William Pryor, a commissioner from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said at Thursday's hearing.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Tom Brown

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