Viewpoint: White collar crime sentencing often misses the mark

The writer of a recent opinion letter inked for a national media publication would likely nod in instant agreement with comments we prominently make on our criminal defense website at the long-established Law Offices of Thomas T. Overton in Nashville.

We note therein that "a conviction for a white collar crime can have devastating effects on your personal and professional life."

And, moreover, the adversity can spill over to encompass virtually all dimensions of a person's life. "Job loss and loss of a professional license are just a couple of the things that may happen."

Such words, we are sure, would instantly resonate with Ingrid Lederhaas-Okun, who can personally attest to their truth. It wasn't long ago that Lederhaas-Okun walked out of a federal prison camp after the termination of a criminal sentence imposed in a white collar theft case.

Lederhaas-Okun was a tenured and top-tier employee with Tiffany & Co. who made what she calls "a colossal mistake" several years ago when she stole jewelry from her employer.

In an article written for the Huffington Post, Lederhaas-Okun flatly acknowledges her guilt and the fact that she needed to be held accountable for her actions.

But, in the aftermath of her ordeal, she has stepped forward to offer what she believes are valid criticisms relevant to white collar crime sentencing.

The focus is often wrong, she notes, given evidence pointing to defendants in economic crimes cases frequently being first-time nonviolent offenders not well served by incarceration.

Lederhaas-Okun points out that such individuals "have the lowest recidivism rates," and would typically be best served -- as would be the government and taxpayers -- by alternative-to-prison sentences that impose accountability while also enabling social reintegration back into local communities. She offers up a structured work program tied to restitutionary payments back to victims as one example of a viable outcome in a white collar crime case.

Lederhaas-Okun correctly notes that "first-time nonviolent white-collar offenders can receive longer sentences than someone convicted of manslaughter or sexual abuse."

That needs to change, she says, because such an outcome benefits nobody.

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