Wednesday, July 13, 2005
The court issued a sentence of 25 years for Bernard Ebbers, the former chief executive of WorldCom Inc. (see here). The Wall Street Journal notes that the judge cited his health and "charitable work" as reasons for the reduced sentence.
Reduced? Like the sentences for the two Rigas defendants and Jamie Olis, this sentence is setting a new trend in sentencing of white collar offenders. The trend is basically - - lock-em-up for the rest of their lives.
1. Do you feel safer knowing that Ebbers will be in prison for 25 years (unless he is successful in his appeal) and John Walker Lindh received a lower sentence for "supplying services to the Taliban" (see here)?
2. Do you give any credence to concerns of AG Gonzales of a “drift toward lower sentences” resulting in the loss of a “critical law enforcement tool.” (see here)?
3. Has anyone bothered to notice that the white collar offenders are not recidivists? (see here)
The bottom line - this sentence represents a new trend in this country - a trend that fails to follow long studied sentencing theory of deterrence and rehabilitation. It is good to see a crackdown on white collar crime, but folks lets be rational in how it is done.
Update (7/13): Should Charitable Work and Contributions Matter?
U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones noted in sentencing Bernie Ebbers that the Sentencing Guidelines called for a sentence of 30 years, but she gave a small downward departure for his charitable work and health condition in giving a 25 year sentence, which will require him to serve over 20 years in a Federal Correctional Institution. A Wall Street Journal article (here) notes that the judge will recommend that he serve his term in the FCI in Yazoo City, Miss., a minimum security prison (information here) north of Jackson, Miss. The Journal also has a link (here) to letters submitted by supporters of Ebbers, many of which discuss his charitable contributions to (among others) Mississippi College and his local Baptist church, where he once taught Sunday school. Should generosity with one's time and money be sufficient to lower a sentence? The Sentencing Guidelines state that "[m]ilitary, civic, charitable, or public services; employment-related contributions; and similar prior good works are not ordinarily relevant in determining whether a sentence should be outside the applicable guideline range." (Sec. 5H1.11)
I have found it a bit troubling that white collar defendants rely on their work on behalf of local charities, churches, and schools as a ground to reduce a criminal sentence. Don't people have a civic, moral, or religious obligation to be generous with their time and money? Charitable works may show the person is not a threat to society, but it does not necessarily reflect on the seriousness of the crime or the punishment that is fair. In U.S. v. Serafini, 233 F.3d 758 (3d Cir. 2000), a state legislator convicted of perjury before a grand jury investigating potential bribery received a three-level downward departure based on his "extraordinary" charitable works that included seeking financing for a medical practice and mentoring a college student who had been seriously injured. I have a hard time accepting the position that a person who has the time and financial resources -- and perhaps a political motivation -- to contribute to the community while also engaged in criminal conduct should be able to argue for a reduced sentence based on that charity. A public official who will lie to a grand jury commits a serious crime, and that person's charitable works does not lessen the harm done.
Did Ebbers act outside the "ordinary" range to warrant a reduction? Given the minimal reduction in the sentence granted by Judge Jones, its is doubtful she was swayed very much by the many letters on Ebbers' behalf extolling his honesty and commitment to the community. His sentence is certainly on the high side, but is not one that I think is outside a fair range, based on the effect of the accounting fraud at WorldCom. The judge may have given the modest reduction to forestall an appeal based on the reasonableness of her sentence, the standard under the new Booker regime for federal sentences, so that the reference to charitable contribution and his medical condition is more of a sop than anything else.
The judge ordered Ebbers to report to prison on Oct. 12, and the next issue will be whether Judge Jones or the Second Circuit will grant bail pending appeal, postponing the start of the prison term. Given the denial of Ebbers' new trial motion, I think it's unlikely Judge Jones will allow him to remain free beyond that date, barring some major change in Ebbers' physical condition. (ph)