White-Collar Crime Punishments Are Sort of, Not Really, Changing

People walk along Wall Street in New York City - Spencer Platt/Getty Images

People walk along Wall Street in New York City – Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When discussing the issue of crime in America, we typically think of robberies, shootings, and even terrorism — items that easily fit the “if it bleeds, it leads” narrative pushed by many media outlets. But a good portion of unlawful activity isn’t perpetrated in the alleys and run-down inner-city neighborhoods of America; it takes place in the high-rises, in front of computer screens, and on Wall Street.

White-collar crime, as it is commonly known, is typically associated with society’s elites. Government officials, bankers, and business professionals immediately come to mind when the phrase is uttered, for example. But what does it entail?

“Lying, cheating, and stealing. That’s white-collar crime in a nutshell,” says the FBI. “The term—reportedly coined in 1939—is now synonymous with the full range of frauds committed by business and government professionals.”

With that kind of activity seemingly rampant in modern America, it may feel like these crimes often go unreported, or at least unpunished. That may be true in many instances, but it’s important to look at the underlying causes of why infractions may go through the justice system without much retribution. Surprisingly, it may have to do with the fact that when prosecutors and legal professionals follow the rules by the book, the punishments don’t fit the crimes.

Recently, the United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency operating under the judicial branch of the U.S. government, voted to adopt a number of changes to address concerns with how white-collar crime is prosecuted and punished. Specifically, the USSC wanted to put new guidelines into place to act in an instructional capacity when sentencing convicted criminals. While people generally feel that white-collar crime gets off a bit too easy, others feel exactly the opposite way — namely, that the current rules call for punishments that are far too severe.

These new guidelines are meant to help smooth things out.

“We found through comprehensive examination that the fraud guideline provides an anchoring effect in the vast majority of cases, but there were some problem areas, particularly at the high-end of the loss table,” said Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission, in a press release. “These amendments emphasize substantial financial harms to victims rather than simply the mere number of victims and recognize concerns regarding double-counting and over-emphasis on loss.”

The severity of white-collar sentencing is often overlooked by those not actively paying attention to the justice system. For example, an article from The Huffington Post points out one specific case in which a 72-year old was sentenced to 330 years in prison for his role in an investment scam. Obviously, that’s a ridiculous punishment that is not proportional to the crime, and is exactly the kind of thing that the USSC is trying to fix.

The actual intent of the changes is to “make punishments more fair by giving greater weight to a criminal’s role and his or her intent,” writes Huffpost’s Dana Liebelson, who adds that judges “must consider whether a defendant purposefully sought to cause harm” when handing down sentences.

Liebelson says that what we’ve ended up with is something that was not intended, yet very evident: nobody is happy with the new rules. Unless Congress steps in, these changes will be effective November 1, 2015.

For those hoping to see more leniency in the sentencing process, advocates say that “they don’t go far enough to fix draconian sentences,” while those on the other side claim that they allow for punishments that are too soft, or that will allow for criminals to have an easier time getting off the hook. So essentially, we’re back at square one.

While the proposed changes may lead to guidelines that are more in line with what people had been hoping for, it doesn’t appear that they will lead to any meaningful changes in practice. Which means that white-collar crime, which many people would like to see punished more harshly, will likely continue to go unpunished — ironically because the sentencing guidelines call for punishments that are far too harsh.

Wrap your head around that.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger

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