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06.21.18 | Blog Posts

Getting to Zero: A Hidden Variable Behind Cooperation Rates?

The Insider: White Collar Defense and Securities Enforcement

The United States Sentencing Commission publishes massive sourcebooks of federal sentencing statistics each year, which are available online going back to 1996. The sourcebooks contain numerous charts showing aggregate sentencing trends in federal cases throughout the United States, as well as charts showing a more limited number of sentencing trends on a district-by-district basis. The recently-published 2017 sourcebook contains a surprising number: 223. That’s the number of defendants who were sentenced as cooperators (with a 5K1.1 letter) in the Southern District of New York in 2017. The number is surprising because over the past 15 years, sentencing laws and practices have changed in ways that, to some degree, have reduced defendants’ incentives to cooperate, and the national cooperation rate has steadily fallen (from about 10,000 defendants a year in 2002 (or 17.4% of defendants) to about 7,000 defendants a year in 2017 (or about 10.8% of defendants)). And yet, the number of cooperators in the S.D.N.Y. last year—223—is exactly the same as the number of cooperators sentenced in the S.D.N.Y. fifteen years earlier in 2002: 223. (The percentage of defendants cooperating in the S.D.N.Y. in 2002 and 2017 is also about the same – between 15-16% of all defendants.) Why has the S.D.N.Y. cooperation rate remained at this level when the national data shows a decrease in the frequency of cooperation? A closer look at this question highlights an important factor for courts and counsel to consider in connection with cooperator sentencings. [...]

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