NEW YORK — Spurred by activist complaints, a United States federal commission has begun a review that could reduce sentences for white-collar crimes. Groups like the American Bar Association and an increasing number of judges are arguing that crimes like securities and mortgage fraud are currently punished too harshly, and are suggesting that “we see white-collar ‘criminals’ for what they truly are: Wonderful, hard-working people who are being unfairly stigmatized.”
This week, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (the agency that “establishes sentencing policies and practices for Federal courts”) is holding a two-day fact-gathering meeting in New York. The commission will reportedly consider alternate sentences for white-collar crimes like fraud, embezzlement and insider trading, which Attorney Michael Handler—a member of Goldman Sachs’s in-house council—says are currently “cruel and unusual.”
“Do we really want to be known as the country that imprisons its best, brightest and most fraudulent minds?” Handler said. “Sure, engaging in insider trading or erecting a Ponzi scheme is technically illegal, but it also takes a lot of brains and creativity, and we should be rewarding that kind of entrepreneurial spirit.”
“Taking risks is what America is all about,” Handler said.
To make an impression on the committee—which seems open to reducing white-collar sentences—a group of Wall St. lawyers that included Handler assembled in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park this week to protest what they call “draconian punishments” for crimes that “really aren’t crimes at all.” One protestor, Steven Barb, Esq., said that all white-collar crimes really serve a social good. “Take Medicare fraud,” Barb said. “Unless people are trying to game the health-care system, how are we going to know its vulnerabilities? Or imagine someone who steals—we prefer the term borrows—$20 million from a pension fund. Think about all the people he’s just saved from the boredom of retirement, now that they’ll have to keep working!”
Even though people convicted of white-collar crimes face prison time only about half as often as do people who commit blue-collar crimes, those arguing for more lenient sentences for the former say that “even fines are too harsh.” “Robbing $48 dollars from a 7-Eleven and earning $10 million from so-called ‘securities fraud’ are completely different things,” Barb said. “The first one usually involves a thug in a doo-rag, while the second involves an upstanding member of the community. We should punish them as such.”
Some lawmakers are pushing back against the proposed changes. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has argued that sentences for white-collar crimes are already too lax, and supports establishing mandatory minimum sentences for financial crimes so that we can “reduce overall racial disparities in federal sentencing and… give prosecutors additional tools to combat these serious crimes.”
“Plus,” Grassley added. “The fact that no Wall St. executives have yet been prosecuted for their part financial meltdown is seriously messed up.”