A prominent defence lawyer says wealthy and powerful criminals who can afford reparations have a head start on more disadvantaged offenders when it comes to sentencing.
John Billington's comments come after former MP and Children's Commissioner Roger McClay was given 300 hours' community work for defrauding charities and Parliamentary Services of $24,687.
McClay, 65, admitted three charges relating to claiming his 90% air travel subsidy as a former MP, while also claiming mileage costs for the same journeys from Keep New Zealand Beautiful and World Vision.
He paid back all the money a week before he was sentenced on Wednesday but there was no indication from the judge about whether that affected his punishment.
Mr Billington, QC, says having the money to pay fines or pay back stolen funds puts wealthier criminals at an advantage.
However, he cautions it does not let them buy their way out of what they have done.
Jail 'more appropriate' for white collar crimes
A prison reform group says sending white collar criminals to jail is more appropriate than it is for many other offenders who sentenced to imprisonment.
A spokesperson for the Howard League for Penal Reform, Jarrod Gilbert, says soft sentences for fraudsters and powerful wealthy people makes a mockery of the community service penalty.
"When you look at the white collar situation, you're intelligent (and) this is a very deliberate crime that usually occurs over a long period of time. So a deterrent sentence in these instances has probably got a greater chance of working."
Mr Gilbert says deterrents such as prison do not work for offenders who are poor, desperate and commit crime on the spur of the moment.