Crime in the suites


Published: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 10:24 p.m.
Recently approved sentencing guidelines involve harsher penalties placed on corporate officials who cheat investors.
The United States Sentencing Commission approved an emergency plan last week that would bring longer prison sentences for corporate officials who cheat investors.
Evidently, the commission is headed in the right direction: The Justice Department doesn't think the new guidelines are harsh enough. Defense attorneys say they are too severe.
The guidelines, adopted after Congress called for increased penalties on corporate officers who defraud investors, would increase prison times by about 25 percent.
The new guidelines, which federal judges use in imposing sentences, were approved by a 5-0 vote. They go into effect later this month and last through November. In April, the commission plans to come back with permanent guidelines that Congress will review for approval.
That would be a good time to address some of the criticisms, particularly from Justice Department officials who said the guidelines don't deal harshly enough with the officers who work for small, private companies instead of large, publicly traded ones.
Congress gave the commission the authority to "raise penalties across the board," said Eric H. Jaso, a nonvoting member of the panel from the Justice Department. "Many smaller-scale frauds cause devastating harm across the country," but the plan's treatment of small-time corporate crimes "sends the wrong message" to company officers and the public.
Meanwhile, James Felman, a Tampa defense lawyer who serves on an advisory panel to the sentencing commission, told The New York Times: "These guidelines are extremely harsh. This is like a nuclear bomb dropped on anyone who has anything to do with any of these offenses. Some people will be facing life in prison."
Commission member Ruben Castillo provided another assessment: "The message of today's amendment is very simple: Crimes in the suites will be treated the same, if not more seriously, than crimes in the streets."
Robbery using pen and ink isn't all that different from taking money with a gun.

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