City: Perverse justice

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JUST how serious a fraud do you have to commit to get sent to jail these days? Not particularly, judging by the experience of Ernest Saunders, who got five years for masterminding a complex stock market ramp that ultimately made his shareholders extremely wealthy - the classic victimless crime. Not very, judging by the two and half years Tony Parnes received for helping him. And not very at all, if you take the multitude of social security fiddlers who get sent to prison every week.

Just recently, however, we have gained a new perspective. Both Roger Levitt and Terry Ramsden walked free last week after avoiding full trial by pleading guilty to reduced charges. If you bend over backwards and perform a couple of flips, it may just be possible to understand what led both trial judges to decide against custodial sentences. In Mr Levitt's case, it surely had much to do with the Serious Fraud Office's stupidity in accepting a plea bargain on one of the more minor charges.

To most people, however, it must seem like perverse justice. These men cost their clients huge amounts of money as well as untold misery and grief. The judge's comment that Mr Ramsden had dealt with 'others not unaware of the basic risks' was just plain crass. Investors have a right to expect protection, and when things go wrong, retribution. The present system seems incapable of delivering either.