WASHINGTON – Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. was sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison Wednesday for illegally spending $750,000 in campaign funds on personal items, the judge scolding the son of the famed civil rights leader for using the money as a “piggy bank” and sentencing his wife to a year as well.
However, Jackson, who emotionally apologized to his father, mother, congressional colleagues and others, was given significantly less prison time than federal guidelines recommend, recognized by the judge as a “complex person” who has done both good and bad.
Sandra Jackson, a former Chicago alderman, was sentenced for filing false joint federal income tax returns.
After prison, the former congressman is to spend three years on supervised release and complete 500 hours of community service. If he earns credit for good behavior in prison, he could end up serving closer to two years. He agreed to repay the $750,000 when he pleaded guilty earlier this year.
According to court documents, the Jacksons had spent campaign money on TV’s, restaurant dinners, an expensive watch and other costly personal items.
Jackson, 48, had been a Democratic congressman from Illinois from 1995 until he resigned last November. In an emotional speech to the judge, he choked up and used tissues to blow his nose. He apologized and said he wanted to “take responsibility for my actions.”
“I misled the American people. I misled the House of Representatives. I misled the Federal Election Commission,” he said. “I was wrong.”
“I also want to apologize to my dad and to my mother,” Jackson added, stopping to compose himself.
The elder Jackson, who sat in the front row during the proceedings, told a crush of reporters outside the courthouse later: “This has been an extraordinarily difficult time for our family.”
In court, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson recognized Jackson Jr.’s public service on issues such as public education and clean water. “That’s what makes this situation so tragic,” she said.
But the judge said that if she gave him no jail time it would send a message that there are two systems: one for the well-connected and one for everyone else.
“I cannot do it. I will not do it,” she said, adding that as a public official, Jackson was expected to “live up to a higher standard of ethics and integrity.” She also said that Jackson’s actions could not be excused because of mental illness. He has been treated for bipolar disorder.
Federal sentencing guidelines called for a prison term of 46 to 57 months – or just under four years to just under five years. The government had recommended four years, while Jackson’s lawyers had asked that his sentence be limited to 18 months.
Jackson’s lawyer, Reid H. Weingarten, said the case lacked the typical victim found in most criminal cases.
“There are not widows and orphans surrounding the courtroom wanting his head,” Weingarten said.
But prosecutor Matt Graves said the crime was serious: “These were extreme abuses,” he said.
Sandra Jackson will be permitted to serve her sentence after her husband completes his. The couple, who have two children, 13 and 9, asked to serve at separate times.
“I stand before you today asking for mercy,” Sandra Jackson said. “My heart breaks every day with the pain that it’s caused my babies.”
Her lawyer, Dan Webb, tried to persuade the judge to spare his client jail time, arguing that it would be an “unbearable burden” on the children. But the judge old Mrs. Jackson, “It is not the court that put your children in this position.”
Having their mother gone will be difficult for the children, the judge said, but “it is survivable.” She said, “Today you have to be held out as an example.”
Sandra Jackson also was ordered to serve 200 hours of community service and pay restitution of $22,000 — the amount of money she took from her alderman’s campaign account for personal use.
The Jacksons, who pleaded guilty in February, entered the courtroom holding hands.
The judge said Jackson’s reporting date for prison would be on or after Nov. 1.
As he got into his SUV to leave, Jackson said, “I still believe in the power of forgiveness. I believe in the power of redemption. Today I manned up and tried to accept responsibility for the errors of my ways— and I still believe in the resurrection.”
The former congressman’s father sat in the front row during the proceedings, surveying the courtroom and writing notes on a piece of paper while waiting for the hearing to start. During a break just before the sentences were announced, he walked over to the defense table and sat down next to his son, who slouched in his chair. Weingarten soon joined them, and the younger Jackson was able to manage a laugh at something one of the other men said.
After the sentencing, the senior Jackson walked over to the prosecution table and shook hands with the prosecutors.
Weingarten told reporters that his camp was satisfied with the court’s rulings “but nobody’s celebrating today, obviously.” He said Jackson had suffered a “fall from grace. ... It’s a huge day of sadness.”