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Craver: Corruption isn't a joke, but its sentences are

Published: Saturday, June 14, 2014 11:16 p.m. CST

“My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time – to let the punishment fit the crime, the punishment fit the crime.” – Gilbert and Sullivan, “The Mikado”

Hooray! Jesse Jackson Jr. will get out of prison early!

Don’t everybody celebrate at once.

The disgraced former congressman completed a drug treatment program and shaved three months off his whopping 2 1/2-year sentence for using $750,000 of his campaign fund like a personal piggy bank, splurging on everything from stuffed elk heads to Michael Jackson’s fedora. Should the Chicago Democrat’s new September 2015 release date hold, Jackson will have served less than two years. Far too light, despite assertions from his cellmate that he does self-imposed penance by scrubbing toilets like a champ.

Sure, Jackson’s no Rita Crundwell, the former Dixon treasurer and comptroller who made corruption history by pilfering more than $53.7 million for a lavish lifestyle of breeding horses. But Crundwell’s sentence of just less than 20 years was too light as well, given the magnitude of what she did.

As I write this, a jury found now-former state Rep. Derrick Smith, D-Chicago, guilty of bribery charges. But I’m not going to waste my time following Smith’s sentencing, because it, too, will be a joke.

Therein lies the problem of rooting out government corruption.

An ever-increasing battery of laws has given prosecutors the power to go after corrupt officials. A 2012 University of Illinois at Chicago study found that more than 1,800 public officials in Illinois have been convicted on federal corruption charges since 1976 – that’s an unbelievable average of about one a week.

Why does political corruption in Illinois continue to flourish? Look no further than Jackson’s ridiculously low sentence at a minimum-security facility. We’ve given prosecutors powerful tools with which to hand out slaps on the wrist.

Jackson’s sentence is low-hanging fruit. How many people would gladly go to a minimum-security Club Fed dormitory for two years or less if it meant getting to spend $750,000 on whatever they wished? Talk about a plush rate of return compared to the risks.

But even the larger sentences for violating the public trust don’t add up to a heck of a lot.

Former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, arguably the most bent governor since Republican Len Small was pardoning mob killers for the right price, got 14 years for a litany of corruption charges, most of which revolved around trying to sell President Barack Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder. The conventional wisdom was that U.S. District Judge James Zagel threw the book at him by corruption standards.

His predecessor, former Republican Gov. George Ryan, served 5 1/2 years of his 6 1/2-year sentence. That’s amazingly light, considering people died because of the licenses-for-bribes scheme that funneled money into his campaigns. The feds conservatively pinned nine fatalities on those bogus driver’s licenses, including a family of six kids who were burned to death. That’s 11 months of prison time for each dead child, the oldest of whom was 12.

One can argue that Crundwell’s sentence could amount to life imprisonment, given that she’s 61 years old. I argue that Crundwell got just less than 4 1/2 months for every $1 million of the $53.7 million she fleeced from taxpayers.

A person with no criminal history who robs a pharmacy and makes off with $53.70, and maybe a bottle of Oxycontin for his trouble, likely would get a stiffer sentence than Crundwell, Ryan or Blagojevich. Or Mel Reynolds, or Dan Rostenkowski, or other participants in the never-ending parade of Illinois political officials who do a stint behind bars.

Jackson’s sentencing, and that of his wife, ex-Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, was reminiscent of far too many others. They start with the sob-choked apology and the plea for mercy. Then comes the tongue lashing from the judge over the violation of the public trust. But in the end, the judge grimaces and hands down a light sentence – limited in great part by formula and pre-existing law – that doesn’t come close to reflecting said tongue lashing.

I watch the sob-choked apology phase with a healthy dash of schadenfreude – given that the sentence will be nothing special, I have to get satisfaction out of the defendant’s public self-debasement. Jesse Jr., who by all accounts bawled like a baby, didn’t disappoint. But when it’s Smith’s turn to be sentenced, I predict we’ll be cheated of even a sob-choked apology. It’s not in his character.

What we need is a shift of focus from giving prosecutors more tools with which to purge corrupt public officials to giving judges the power to give them longer and tougher sentences. That would require members of Congress to pass laws that they themselves could run afoul of one day. I’m not holding my breath given lawmakers’ penchant for exempting themselves from the rules that they expect the great unwashed to follow.

As for Sandi Jackson? She received one year behind bars, which she will serve when her husband is released. But there’s a nugget of justice in that sentence.

Had she gotten even a day more than one year, she would have been eligible for credit for good behavior in federal prison. But with a one-year sentence, she serves all 365 days.

The fact that those who thirst for good government have to grasp at such small consolations as major victories explains why the state’s never-ending parade of indicted officials won’t stop anytime soon.

• Senior reporter Kevin P. Craver has won more than 70 state and national journalism awards during his 13 years with the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4618 or at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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