Here is a riddle: one man steals $100 in quarters, while another hides millions of dollars from the IRS. What’s the same in the two cases? The answer, frequently, is the sentence.
Sentences handed to white collar criminals have once again become a newsworthy topic thanks to the recent sentencing of top Insys executives. Five of the top executives at Insys Therapeutics were found guilty on racketeering charges, in connection with their company’s actions regarding the opioid epidemic. This led to the question of their sentencing.
Insys sentences serve as an example
The most notable Insys sentencing was that of the company’s CEO. Federal prosecutors wanted him to serve 15 years in prison. The judge gave him five-and-a-half. But even that 66-month sentence was remarkable in that it flew in the face of the larger trends surrounding white collar crime:
- In 2018, the Department of Justice reported that white collar prosecutions had hit a 20-year low
- The penalties softened along with the reduced charges
- The drop-off was so remarkable that a New York law firm sent a memo to its clients, encouraging them not to succumb to temptation
It is perhaps telling that the Insys executives were genuinely surprised they got jail time at all. One said he’d seen companies fined countless times. He considered the fines a cost of doing business, but he had “no idea that criminally there would be consequences.”
Why are white collar sentences so much softer?
The BBC explored the question in May 2019 and noted several contributing factors:
- Judges have a lot of freedom when they hand out sentences. They have sentencing guidelines but aren’t strictly bound to follow them.
- Among other things, the sentences must consider the need to deter future crime and protect the public. White collar criminals often present lower future risk.
- The victims of white collar crime tend to be more abstracted. It’s hard to feel the same sympathy for a government agency or the general taxpayer base that you may feel for an old woman.
- Judges may relate more closely to white collar criminals since they are often highly educated and may present themselves as good people who made bad mistakes.
- White collar criminals are often first-time offenders, and may receive the leniency granted for first offenses.
- They can often point to good works outside of their crimes. They may have given to charity, supported friends and family or taken other steps that portray them in a more positive light.
White collar charges can be extremely complex. They can involve local, state, national and international law, and practices that laymen perceive as illegal, but are in fact perfectly legal.
The line is often blurry
In fact, as NPR reported, much of what Insys and the other pharmaceuticals did was actually legal. That may have been part of the reason Insys execs were surprised by their punishments. The line may be blurry, but you need to know where it is. You want to stay on the right side.