The increasing average length of sentences given to convicted money launderers in the UK over the past decade makes a strong enough story in itself. But I would suggest that looking beyond this may help us learn more about how this increasingly high-profile crime is being tackled by the authorities.
And there is one statistic, which I refer to later, that is perhaps more notable than any other.
It may certainly be the case, as has been reported, that money launderers are facing longer prison terms as a result of revisions to the sentencing guidelines in 2014. And the fact that the average prison sentence for money laundering offences rose to 27 months in 2018 is especially eye-catching when it is considered that this represents a 32% increase on the average in December 2008 – and that 27 months stands as a record high.
Under the 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act, money launderers can face up to 14 years in prison or pay a fine. In considering the increase in the average sentence between December 2008 and 2018 it would be foolish not to attribute some of this to the fact that the sentencing guidelines of 2014 allow prosecutors to argue for tougher prison sentences for individuals found guilty of money laundering or bribery. Sentencing Council guidelines have become tougher because they are seeking to emphasise the harm that financial crimes have on those who are victims of them. They intend for any penalty imposed to take into account distress, inconvenience or monetary loss that may have been suffered as a result of the offending.
It is not stretching a point, therefore, to argue that the guidelines have given prosecutors ample opportunity to aim for longer sentences for the UK’s money launderers. And it may be that, since the guidelines were introduced, judges have been prepared to accept prosecution calls for harsher sentences for money launderers. That may well be a large factor in the increase in average sentence from 2008 to 2018.
But, as I touched on earlier, looking beyond this attention-grabbing statistic may tell us more. In fact, one related statistic that hasn’t made as many headlines may by more enlightening. Average jail sentences for money laundering have increased by 8% over the past year. Unlike the leap in sentence length that we saw from 2008-18, this cannot be accounted for by any change to sentencing guidelines that have given prosecutors the chance to demand lengthier sentences or judges the opportunity to meet that demand.
In the past year, the guidance available to judges for sentencing has been unaltered. This means that the 8% shift upwards in average sentence length can only be attributed to two things. The first is the possibility of a sharp rise in the sums involved when convictions are obtained. This would by default increase the average sentence length – and may arguably even indicate greater success in identifying and prosecuting money laundering. The second, however, is that the longer sentences are the result of a concerted push by the judiciary to impose punishments that serve as an increasingly powerful deterrent to those who consider money laundering to be a relatively low-risk criminal enterprise.
There may well be many who are of the opinion that money laundering is a risk worth taking. Maybe they believe that a few unquestioned transfers here and there for modest reward cannot really be considered worthy of attention or even that risky. They may convince themselves that it is not as if they are committing a fraud or whatever they consider to be a “serious’’ crime.
The knowledge that sentences are on the increase however, and that money laundering is being viewed more severely by the courts should give them pause for thought. And if the headline-grabbing figure of a 32% rise in sentences over ten years doesn’t make them think twice then the 8% rise in the past year certainly should. The past year has seen sentences rise steeply. That should be a warning to anyone who still believes (or at least wants to believe) that money laundering isn’t really a serious crime.
This article originally featured on Barrister Magazine.