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February 19, 2010

Noting the triple-digit impact of the Bernie Benchmark

Regular readers may recall my Bernie Madoff sentencing reaction-prediction that "though the choice of the magic sentencing number of 150 years — as opposed to 30 years or 50 years or 100 years — really means very little to Bernie Madoff, it could end up meaning a lot to the government and to some future defendants as a new white-collar sentencing benchmark."  Amir Efrati has this effective new piece on this topic at the WSJ Law Blog, which is titled "Possible Madoff Effect: Triple-Digit White-Collar Prison Sentences." Here are a few excerpts:

When Bernard Madoff last year received a prison sentence of 150 years for committing arguably the largest financial crime by an individual in U.S. history, the public cheered. “Symbolism is important,” said Denny Chin, a federal judge in Manhattan, at Madoff’s sentencing hearing.

Many legal experts believe Chin’s sentence likely empowered other judges to impose enormous, symbolic sentences for fraudsters.  Of course, there are a few examples of triple-digit sentences prior to Madoff.

But consider this: Since July, three fraudsters have joined the triple-digit club, receiving sentences of 100 years or longer and setting records in their respective federal judicial districts. It should be noted that only one of the judges in those cases mentioned Madoff during sentencing proceedings.

Earlier this week a new face joined the club: Robert Thompson, 43 years old, who led a large identity theft and bribery scheme while he was in a state prison for other charges. Earlier this week Thompson, who obtained more than $100,000 from the scheme, was sentenced by a Baton Rouge, La., judge to 309 years in prison. Here’s the story from the Advocate.

David Dugas, the U.S. attorney for the middle district of Louisiana, told the Law Blog that the federal judge in the case made no mention of Madoff and generally sticks to the federal sentencing guidelines, which in this case recommended a sentence of life.

In August of last year, Edward Okun, 58 years old, received a 100-year sentence after being convicted at trial of stealing $126 million from escrow accounts.... Robert Payne, the Richmond, Va., judge who sentenced Mr. Okun, said the defendant’s conduct “may not…have hurt as many people as…Mr. Madoff…but the impact is truly extensive and truly widespread and affects people all over this country.”   In September, Richard Harkless, 65, of Riverside, Calif., received a 100-year term after being convicted at trial of operating a Ponzi scheme that cost investors $39 million.

To some judges, former judges, and lawyers who study sentencing, sky-high prison terms set a bad precedent. Defendants who commit arguably worse crimes — such as second-degree murder — could receive sentences lower than fraudsters, they say. And defendants whose crimes pale in comparison to Madoff’s could receive unduly harsh punishment.

Some recent related posts:

February 19, 2010 at 04:26 PM | Permalink


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I agree, Doug: you said it at the time, and you were right. Madoff’s 150 years makes a lot of other sentences seem short, when in reality they’re not.

It is hard to imagine the non-violent first-time offender who merits a sentence longer than 20 years. I mean, to practically anyone except the most hardened criminals, 20 years is basically “forever.” If the prospect of 20 years in prison doesn’t deter you, then you probably cannot be deterred.

Yet, after Madoff, 20 years seems light. It isn’t light, of course. It just seems that way.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Feb 19, 2010 5:22:27 PM

Oh, I can think of plenty of examples...

When self-entitled sheisters bilk people out of their livelihoods, or bilk charities of their means for saving lives, they have created more societal destruction than an armed bank robber--and certainly have cost more lives.

And yet, somehow because the bank robber's crime was "violent," is somehow worse? The concept of "violence" as currently defined in the criminal law is a ridiculous one. When a company president orders the dumping of toxic chemicals into the city water system to avoid cleanup costs, he deserves a murder conviction for each baby poisoned thereafter, even though the offense is non-violent, and even if he has no prior record. Similarly, where a fraudster causes African children to die because he knowingly stole the very funds used to save those children, 20 years is too lenient.

Posted by: Res ipsa | Feb 22, 2010 2:15:44 PM

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