The assumption that white collar criminal convictions do not result in severe punishment is unfortunately deeply embedded in our national conscience. This is humorously demonstrated in the 1999 film Office Space, where the characters describe the possibility of winding up in a “white collar minimum security resort”.
Such attitudes have real repercussions, as some people fail to act quickly to protect their rights in the face of charges such as fraud or insider trading.
A Harmful Myth
The idea that white collar offenders live a life of luxury while serving a short sentence has been proven false. In fact, the case can be made that federal sentencing guidelines “are out of line and the sentences that many white collar defendants receive are much harsher than they might appear because of inflated guidelines that few believe in.” (Source: “The Illusion That White-Collar Offenders Get Greatly Reduced Sentences”, Forbes)
The Yale Law Review published Fifty Shades of Gray” Sentencing Trends in Major White-Collar Cases by Jillian Hewitt in 2016. Author Jillian Hewitt set out to take a closer look at how white collar defendants are sentenced. She found that the perception of white collar defendants getting off easy can be tied to judges deviating from the sentencing guidelines.
Why do they deviate from the guidelines? According to Hewitt, when judges deviate, “the resulting sentences are often dramatically shorter than those produced under the Guidelines”. Judges do this because they view the guidelines to be “arbitrary or too severe”.
However, some judges choose to “play it safe” by simply following the sentencing guidelines, resulting in extremely harsh sentences for people convicted of white collar crimes. In the previously mentioned Forbes piece, it is pointed out that a defendant was offered a plea deal that would put him in prison for 10 years; the guidelines would have recommended 125 years!
Do sentences get reduced when compared to the guidelines? Sometimes yes. However, that “reduced” sentence may still involve a decade of your life behind bars. If you find yourself under investigation or facing white collar charges, fall for the myth of the “white collar minimum security resort” at your own peril.