The U.S. Sentencing Commission will soon be sending to Congress its recommendations for sentencing businesses found guilty of violating federal criminal laws -- recommendations that automatically will bind the courts unless Congress rejects them. But despite months of debate, there still is little consensus in the business or law-enforcement community on how the guidelines should be constructed.

In general, spokesmen for corporations say the proposals the commission is considering are too harsh, and the Justice Department complains that they are too lenient.

The Sentencing Commission was set up to curb some of the discretion given judges in sentencing and produce more uniformity, both from one court to another and one crime to another of similar seriousness. The primary punishment tool is time behind bars. In particular, the guidelines have led to more jail time for white collar criminals, who before were likely to be let off with a fine and probation.

But while companies can break laws -- by illegal dumping or money laundering or getting together with competitors to fix prices -- they cannot be sent to jail. That's why the panel has been struggling with alternatives.

It wants to force the company to make internal organizational changes to ensure that the business won't break the law again.

The biggest current controversy is over the amount a company should be fined. Essentially, the commission is considering telling judges to test twin approaches, then base the final order on whichever technique results in the toughest sentence.

One analysis would base the fine on the level of seriousness of the crime. The other looks at how much victims of the crime lost or how much the company made unlawfully. That way, a company that duped a lot of people for a lot of money would be stuck with a massive fine, even if the felony is one that otherwise is deemed not very heinous.

The fine could be reduced by the judge if there were mitigating factors. But still "those are extremely high levels of fines, and the mandatory nature of the fines do not grant the judge much discretion in imposing sentences," complained Washington lawyer Samuel Buffone, who served as chairman of an American Bar Association committee on sentencing guidelines.

Victoria Toensing, a former Justice Department official now in private practice in Washington, argues: "The proposed fines are much too high."

The basic problem, she said, is that the proposals will lead to severely punishing an organization that "has done all it can to comply with the law and just has some aberrant, low-level employee, or people who simply don't understand all the complicated new laws being thrown at corporations today."

That's not the way the Justice Department sees it.

In at least some instances, the guidelines now under consideration produce sentences that are too light, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh claims in an interview in this month's ABA Journal.

That's especially true when a criminal plot is uncovered so early that there were no victims, or only a few. That means that basing a fine on the ill-gotten gains would not produce a very impressive sum.

But in many cases, neither would basing it on the offense level.

Those were designed with the belief that there's a big impact in sending white-collar criminals to prison for even a brief time, and no need to compound the deterrence with long sentences.

For example, a company doing $10 million gross in a particular market got together with other suppliers and divided up customers to avoid price competition. Using the scheme drawn up for individuals would produce a corporate fine of no more than $112,500.

"Such a fine would be viewed as an incremental cost of doing business, not as punishment for wrongdoing," antitrust chief James F. Rill testified last month.

But Rill said that using the alternative, that of basing the fine on the amount of money customers lost because of the conspiracy, "would likely complicate the sentencing process, and would certainly result in a serious drain on the {Justice} Department's enforcement resources and a major imposition on the courts."