White-Collar Justice (Editorial)

A hearing scheduled for last Friday, a day after this issue went to press, was to determine whether Jeffrey Skilling, he of Enron infamy, would have his 24-year prison sentence reduced. The former CEO had agreed to waive further appeals in exchange for having his sentence trimmed by 10 years.

The resentencing prompted an article in the Wall Street Journal detailing “growing debate about the rules for punishing white-collar criminals.”

It’s complicated — much like white-collar crime is often complicated, the better to mask the crime — but the argument seems to boil down to whether sentencing guidelines linking prison time to the severity of financial losses is resulting in unjustly long jail terms. If a public company executive goes rogue and his sentence is tied to declines in the company’s stock price resulting from the rogue behavior, that executive could face life in prison.

An American Bar Association task force is studying the issue with an eye toward proposing changes in sentencing guidelines for white-collar crimes. Jed Rakoff, a New York federal judge who is a member of the task force, says the guidelines should be dumped, holding that emphasizing monetary loss “does not fairly convey the reality of the crime or the criminal.”

Maybe. But how else to measure the damage done? And should damage done be the main criterion in determining a white-collar criminal’s sentence?

The Enron scandal cost shareholders billions of dollars and employees their retirements, in addition to thousands of jobs. How much is a livelihood worth?

Errant executives are no strangers to the pages of Arkansas Business, nor are errant public servants. What are the gradations of abuse of public trust?

Will Martha Shoffner — who remains presumed innocent — receive the same justice granted Lu Hardin?

Karma is all well and good, but karma is out of our hands. Justice — that’s a different matter.