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The federal panel that sets sentencing policy eased penalties this year for potentially tens of thousands of drug prisoners. Now, defense lawyers and prisoner advocates are pushing for similar treatment for an arguably less-sympathetic category of inmates: white-collar criminals.

WASHINGTON -- The federal panel that sets sentencing policy eased penalties this year for potentially tens of thousands of drug dealers. Now, defense lawyers and prisoner advocates are pushing for similar treatment for an arguably less-sympathetic category of defendants: swindlers, embezzlers, insider traders and other white-collar criminals.

Lawyers who have long sought the changes say a window to act opened once the U.S. Sentencing Commission cleared a major priority from its agenda by cutting sentencing ranges for nonviolent drug dealers. The commission, which meets today to vote on priorities for the coming year, already has expressed interest in examining punishments for white-collar crime. And the Justice Department, though not advocating wholesale changes, has said it welcomes a review.

It’s unclear what action the commission 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.

Sentencing guidelines are advisory rather than mandatory, but judges still rely heavily on them for consistency’s sake. The discussion about revamping white-collar sentences comes as some federal judges have chosen to ignore the existing guidelines as too stiff for some cases and as the Justice Department looks for ways to cut costs in an overpopulated federal prison system.


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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 sentencing expert.

The commission’s action to soften drug-crime guidelines is a signal that the time is ripe, defense lawyers say.

Just as drug sentences have historically been determined by the amount of drugs involved, white-collar punishments have been defined by the total financial loss caused by the crime. Advocates hope the commission’s decision to lower sentencing guideline ranges for drug crimes, effectively de-emphasizing the significance of drug quantity, paves the way for a new sentencing scheme that removes some of the weight attached to economic loss.