This month, the U.S. sentencing guidelines changed in an important way that will affect many older Americans convicted of white-collar crimes. The guidelines changed in a way that gives sentencing judges more latitude in considering a defendant's age when assigning a sentence.
According to U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics, a large portion of defendants convicted of white-collar offenses are over the age of 50. Last year, defendants over the age of 50 composed nearly half of those convicted of tax offenses, 28 percent of money laundering offenses, 22 percent of larceny offenses, and 20 percent of fraud offenses.
With such a large portion of older defendants in white-collar cases, only 2.6 percent of defendants received a downward sentencing departure based on age. Why is this? The previous language from the U.S. sentencing guidelines declared that a defendant's age to be "not ordinarily relevant." Appeals courts regularly upheld a sentencing judge's decision not to consider a defendant's advanced age when handing down a sentence and occasionally overturned sentences that were shortened because of a defendant's age.
The new guidelines state that "age (including youth) may be relevant in determining whether a departure is warranted" if considerations based on age are present "to an unusual degree." The guidelines further state "Age may be a reason to depart downward in a case in which the defendant is elderly and infirm and where a form of punishment such as home confinement might be equally efficient as and less costly than incarceration."
Defense attorneys everywhere should applaud this change. These new guidelines give sentencing judges much more discretion in determining sentences for older people convicted of crimes. All too often, we have seen news accounts of older defendants given lengthy prison sentences that amounted to life sentences, with little chance of them ever leaving prison or spending time with their families again. These new guidelines offer new hope of a common sense approach when judges make sentencing determinations.
Sources: Bloomberg: White-Collar Criminals in U.S. May Invoke Age to Seek Lighter Sentences; Thom Weidlich, 10/28/2010
2010 Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual; Retrieved from: http://www.ussc.gov/2010guid/5h1_1.htm