Sentencing Law

How Much Time Will I Serve for Fraud and Related Crimes?

A conviction for fraud or a related crime comes with severe penalties that can affect your life, career, and freedom. While both state and federal laws prohibit fraud, embezzlement, and theft, white-collar criminal investigations are often prosecuted at the federal level. Generally, a conviction on federal fraud charges can mean a significant potential sentence.

This article looks at federal sentencing data compiled by the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) and discusses trends and noteworthy data points related to sentencing for fraud, theft, and embezzlement cases.

Click on the image below to see notable statistics and information on federal fraud sentencing. 

Fraud demographic info

About the Data

The USSC categorizes and tracks crimes of fraud, theft, and embezzlement in the same group, so the data here reflects a variety of white-collar crimes.

Fraud, theft, and embezzlement are separate but related criminal charges that involve the misappropriation or theft of financial assets. These crimes can cover a lot of different criminal activities, from taking money out of a cash register to securities fraud. Large financial crimes, such as pyramid schemes that can affect millions of people and involve billions of dollars, are also in this category. That is why fraud and embezzlement can have widely different penalties. The data in this article excludes money laundering and tax crimes, however, as the USSC tracks those crimes separately.

Below are sentences that federal courts have imposed on defendants convicted of fraud, theft, or embezzlement. It provides a rough outline of the sorts of sentences imposed on criminal defendants convicted of fraud or a related white-collar crime in federal court. All data is from 2019.

Data Trends vs. Individual Cases

Issues related to sentencing in white-collar cases are extremely complex and require knowledge of the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Every case is unique, and every criminal defendant is sentenced according to the circumstances of their case. There are a few general principles, however. The amount of money involved and the seriousness of the crime will affect sentencing. The sentence will also increase if the defendant has a prior criminal history.

While an analysis of the data can't predict a sentence for any single defendant, the data does help to show the factors involved in sentencing and gives a broad overview of how federal courts handle sentencing for fraud and related white-collar crimes.

Number of Fraud Sentences By State

While federal courts use the same sentencing guidelines, the specific jurisdiction still matters. The data below does not necessarily mean that some judges or jurisdictions are more lenient than others, however. For example, in some jurisdictions there were relatively few prosecutions for fraud compared to other states, meaning that a few outliers in those states and territories can make some jurisdictions look more lenient while giving others the impression of being particularly harsh.

The below graph charts the total number of sentences given in 2019. Florida has the most, with the Northern Mariana Islands the least. The most heavily populated states tend to have the most sentences given. California, New York, and Texas approach Florida for total number of sentences. Fraud and embezzlement are more likely to occur in financial hubs and among population groups that have significant assets, so this data is unsurprising. Also, of course, there are just more people who could potentially commit crimes in these states.

The next chart measures the total average sentence across jurisdictions for fraud at the federal level. The data compiles an average sentence for all defendants measured in months.

Average Fraud Sentences

Type of Sentences Given

Sentencing guidelines tend to view non-violent offenses as more appropriate for alternative sentencing such as probation. Courts tend to view violent offenders as more likely to endanger the public. However, this is not the case for fraud/embezzlement/theft in federal court. Most sentences handed down included prison time, while only about 15% of defendants received probation only.

As you can see in the chart below, the majority of defendants received prison time after their conviction or plea deal. Including defendants who received both prison and probation, over 70% of defendants had to spend time behind bars. All numbers are given in percentages.

Fine 1.1%
Prison + 5.0%
Prison 61.5%
Probation + 5.3%
Probation 16.7%
Both 10.3%

a bar chart showing the type of sentence given for a federal fraud conviction

Plea Deal vs. Trial

Criminal trials in federal court tend to be rare, with even fewer acquittals. This is true of fraud, embezzlement, and theft, as well. Less than 5% of defendants went to trial, with the overwhelming majority choosing to enter into a plea deal of some kind.

Plea 95.4%
Trial 4.6%

a bar chart showing the amount of federal fraud cases that go to plea deals instead of trials

What happens to those who do choose to go to trial? It isn't clear from the data how many of those trials ended in an acquittal. But we do know that if convicted, a defendant can see a significant increase in their sentence. Defendants who entered into a plea deal received only one-third of the overall sentence compared to defendants who went to trial. The below sentences are in months:

Plea 19.4
Trial 59.6

a bar chart showing that people who go to trial on federal fraud charges get much longer sentences than those who take plea deals

Do Judges Mostly Follow Sentencing Guidelines for White-Collar Crimes?

Federal guidelines are no longer considered mandatory, meaning judges have some leeway in determining the sentence of a defendant. Still, most judges will follow sentencing guidelines. When it comes to fraud, embezzlement, and theft, if they do issue a sentence that is different from the guidelines, judges are much more likely to go below sentencing guidelines than above.

Within Guidelines 48.6%
Exceeded Guidelines Range 2.0%
Below Guidelines Range 49.4%

a bar chart showing how often judges stick to sentencing guidelines in federal fraud cases

This could be due to a variety of factors. One could be the number of plea deals entered into. It's possible that prosecutors are more likely to seek a shorter sentence for cooperative defendants. It is also possible that judges are more likely to take extenuating circumstances into account for non-violent offenses.

Of those defendants who do receive a sentence above or below the guideline range, the average departure is about 17 months.

How Does a Prior Criminal History Affect Sentencing for Fraud?

As noted previously, one of the factors federal sentencing guidelines use to determine sentencing is a prior criminal history. We can see that most defendants sentenced in federal court for fraud have a prior criminal record. The below graph is the total number of defendants sentenced with and without a criminal history:

No Criminal History 2,137
Criminal History 4,252

a bar chart showing people convicted of federal fraud charges who have a criminal history vs those who don't

As expected, defendants with a criminal history received a higher average sentence. The below chart measures sentence length in months:

No Criminal History 15.0
Criminal History 24.4

a bar chart showing that people convicted of federal fraud charges with a prior criminal history receive longer sentences
Does Education Matter in Criminal Sentencing for Fraud?

Most criminal defendants sentenced for fraud, theft or embezzlement had at least some college education. This is expected, as financial crimes are often perpetrated by those who have access to funds, such as financial planners, trust fund managers, and business owners, who are more likely to have some level of college completed. However, a fair number of high school graduates were also sentenced for fraud or embezzlement.

College Graduate 19.8%
High School Graduate 26.7%
Less Than High School Graduate 15.6%
Not on List 8.3%
Some College 29.5%

a bar chart showing the breakdown in education level of federal fraud offenders

The real divergence comes in sentence length. As you can see, people with a college education were more likely to receive a longer sentence, with an average sentence length approaching 30 months. Most likely this reflects the seriousness of the crime being charged. The kinds of positions that have access to large amounts of money tend to be filled by people with a college degree or higher.

College Graduate 29.5
High School Graduate 21.5
Less Than High School Graduate 19.5
Not on List 2.5
Some College 21.7

a bar chart showing the average sentence length for a federal fraud conviction by offender education level

Average Sentence by Race

Does a defendant's race influence the sentence for fraud? Courts cannot take race into account when sentencing a defendant, although occasionally there can appear to be a disparity in some circumstances. This is not the case for financial crimes, however. Most defendants were sentenced similarly regardless of race. Combined with a relatively small sample size for some races and ethnicities, any broad takeaways from the data are impossible. The numbers below are sorted according to the USSC categories and definitions of races and ethnicities. 

Non-Hispanic, Caucasian defendants received the most number of sentences for fraud, embezzlement, and theft.

White Hispanic Black
2,616 1,554 1,756

Sentencing Breakdown by Gender

Men are more likely than women to be sentenced for committing fraud or a related crime. Somewhat unusually compared to other crimes, sentences were also most often given to older adults, particularly those aged 31-50. Again, this probably reflects the type of crime being perpetrated. Most employees with access to company funds, for example, are older and have worked with the company for at least a few years. Similarly, most money managers with access to accounts and assets that are not their own are more likely to be experienced professionals. Many times women can be underrepresented in these fields. Only 11% of fund managers are female, for example.

Age Female Male
20 & Younger 41 67
21-30 356 991
31-40 506 1,204
41-50 480 1,023
51-60 340 685
61 & Older 219 474

Key Takeaways

We now have some basic knowledge about sentencing for fraud, embezzlement, and theft in federal court. Most defendants will:

  • Accept a plea deal
  • Receive a sentence within or below federal sentencing guidelines
  • Serve time in prison
  • Get a sentence increase for having a prior criminal history

The average time sentenced is around one to two years, although it varies widely, as you would expect from such a broad category of crimes. Statistically, the most common type of defendant is a white man aged 41-50 with at least some college education.

Questions on Criminal Sentencing You Are Facing?

If you are facing criminal charges and have questions over potential sentencing, you can search LawInfo's legal directory to find a local criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights and help you determine the best way