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Sentencing panel to rethink economic crime penalties

WASHINGTON — The federal panel that sets sentencing policy revealed Thursday it plans to consider changes to guidelines for some white-collar crimes.

The US Sentencing Commission, which earlier this year reduced guideline ranges for nonviolent drug crimes, unanimously approved its latest set of priorities. The top priority will be working with Congress on reducing the scope of mandatory minimum penalties, but another goal will be measuring the fairness of sentences for fraud and other economic crimes, the commission said.

The panel had been reviewing data for several years, but plans to hear more from judges, victims, and others to decide ‘‘whether there are ways the economic crime guidelines could work better,’’ the commission’s chairwoman, Patti Saris, a federal judge in Massachusetts, said in a statement.


Defense lawyers who long have sought the changes say a window to act opened once the sentencing commission cut sentencing guidelines for drug crimes, clearing a major priority from its agenda.

It’s unclear what action the commission ultimately will take, especially given the public outrage at fraudsters who stole their clients’ life savings and lingering anger over the damage inflicted by the 2008 financial crisis. But the discussion about tweaking sentences for economic crimes comes as some federal judges have chosen to ignore the existing guidelines in some cases.

Sentencing guidelines are advisory rather than mandatory, but judges still rely heavily on them for consistency’s sake. Advocates arguing that white-collar sentencing guidelines are ‘‘mixed up and crazy’’ could weaken support for keeping them in place, said Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman, a law expert.

Just as drug sentences historically have been determined by the amount of drugs involved, white-collar punishments typically are defined by the total financial loss caused by the crime. A 2013 proposal from an American Bar Association task force encourages judges to place less emphasis on the money lost and more on a defendant’s culpability.