When my wife—a nurse—saw yesterday that former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich got a 14-year sentence for public corruption, she said “Is that all?” When her former prosecutor husband heard the same news, I thought “That sounds like a long time for a guy society cannot be afraid of.” Here’s an explanation which attempts to reconcile those different reactions.
This sentence will turn out to be longer than you might think—there is no parole in the federal system, and a defendant sentenced under federal law must serve 85 percent of the sentence. That means that Blagojevich will serve almost 12 years of that 14-year sentence.
This was a significant victory for the prosecution, which simplified its presentation for the jury on a retrial after the first trial produced a hung jury as to most counts.
The length of the sentence reflected a number of factors. The former Governor stood convicted of serious offenses: 18 felony counts that included wire fraud, bribery, attempted extortion, conspiracy, and lying to the FBI. Blagojevich tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Barack Obama. He shook down the CEO of a children’s hospital. And it’s never a good thing for somebody being sentenced when the judge concludes that that the defendant committed perjury (“The jury didn’t believe him, and neither did I”).
Also going against Blagojevich was his state’s sad history in this area. Illinois has been a cesspool of public corruption for decades, with three previous Governors being convicted of such crimes over the past 40 years. (A fourth went to prison for felonies committed after he left office). Indeed, Blagovevich’s immediate predecessor as Governor is serving a 6.5-year sentence, a term in prison that was apparently insufficient to deter the next man to fill the chair.
Blagojevich had a lot of opportunities to learn the contours and consequences of public corruption—he served as a prosecutor, state legislator, and Member of the U.S. House before becoming Governor in 2003.
Most people sentenced in most courtrooms have nothing to do with public corruption, making it difficult to evaluate sentences by ordinary standards. There is no need to keep Blagojevich in prison to prevent him from abusing the public trust again, so isolation or restraint for public safety is not a factor in sentencing him. If society is not locking up Blagojevich because we are scared of him, why a 14-year sentence?
The judge imposed that length of sentence to set boundaries to show the public what public corruption is and to scare other public officials away from committing acts of public corruption. “The harm here is not measured in the value of property or money,” U.S. District Judge James Zagel said. “The harm is the erosion of public trust in government.”
The judge accepted the logic of the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum. That document quoted a legal decision’s statement that “Government corruption breeds cynicism and mistrust of elected officials. It causes the public to disengage from the democratic process because…the public begins to think of politics as ‘only for the insiders.’”
The average annual cost of incarceration of a federal inmate now runs well over $25,000 per year, so keeping Blagojevich will set back the taxpayers well over a quarter million dollars. I recognize the unusual nature of Blagojevich’s case, but financial considerations in imprisonment should play more into our thinking about sentencing.