Get Out of Jail cards

Do alternatives to prison exist for Illinois’ public delinquents?


Writers of newspaper columns, it turns out, are not the only people who have trouble getting sentences right. Eyebrows, if not voices, were raised when federal judge James Zagel set 14 years in prison as the price Rod Blagojevich must pay for nearly committing a crime. That’s only one year short of the maximum that state courts can impose for a criminal sexual assault. George Ryan, whose misdeeds in office arguably led to a driver being on Illinois roads whose negligence caused the deaths of six children, got a piddly six and a half years.

In previous columns I complained about the dubious laws used to prosecute corrupt Illinois political figures (“Tangible rights,” June 23, 2011) and about the unreliable juries that judge them (“Good and true,” Dec. 22, 2011). Zagel’s sentence raises similar questions. The good judge explained that he slammed Blago in part because the lighter sentences usually given in such cases plainly had not deterred corruption among Illinois politicos. His decision illustrated the delusion of deterrence, which holds that a person ought to be punished not only for the crime he did, but to prevent the crimes that others might do.

The delusion persists in spite of the fact that research to date generally indicates that it is not the severity of punishments that deter would-be wrongdoers, but the certainty of punishment. Even that assumption seldom holds true for top Illinois public officials. Top pols become top pols in Illinois because 1) they are self-confident to the point of delusion, and do not believe they will be caught or 2) being creatures of Illinois political culture, they don’t realize they are doing anything wrong.

Deterrence is in any event not the real reason we send people to jail. It is only a fig leaf to hide our unseemly lust for revenge. (Or our pique. Prosecutors wanted Blagojevich to get 15 to 20, mainly because Blago “thumbed his nose at the U.S. justice system.”) Like most lusts, this one is expensive to indulge. Keeping Blago for 12 years in a medium-security federal pen (one big house he will like even less than the Executive Mansion) will cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $350,000.

We can argue whether there are better ways to punish our miscreants, but most will agree that we need cheaper ones. There are not many lessons that the Florence of the 14th century has for the Illinois of the 21st, but here is one. The Bible’s condemnation of lending money at interest put the Florentines of that day in a bind, as they were the world’s first modern bankers. Having lots of money but insufficient virtue in the eyes of the church, they tried to buy salvation by commissioning art works of a pious nature in the form of altar pieces, statuary and frescoes to embellish the city’s churches and inculcate piety among the common people. The result was some of the finest art the world has ever known.

Bill Cellini, to name another public figure facing punishment in federal court, is as close to a Florentine duke as Springfield has ever seen. I do not wish to characterize the millions he has amassed as ill-gotten; the word no longer has meaning in a country in which the riches of hedge fund managers and options-gaming CEOs are considered well-gotten. Nonetheless, the feds demand that he play Medici to Pat Fitzgerald’s Savonarola.

Very well. Jail time would be pointless, since Cellini at 77 poses no risk to anyone. Why not allow him to sacrifice his fortune instead of his freedom by paying to build needed public works? A decent office building for Capitol complex workers would do nicely, or a new state museum building or, even better, a proper museum and library dedicated to Lincoln that doesn’t look like a suburban car dealership.

Of course, not all our villains are Rich Uncle Pennybagswho can buy a Get Out of Jail card. Kings and queens of old simply sent disgraced ministers into exile, which is prison of a sort but without the overhead. For Blagojevich, why not save that 350 grand and sentence him to internal exile – in Springfield? It certainly would be punishment. He hates the place. He worked harder to stay out of Springfield than he worked to stay out of the federal pen. The risk is that such a move would excite an Eighth Amendment challenge on grounds that such exile would be tantamount to torture. To Blagojevich, Jim Thompson’s 14 years in Springfield was akin to Mandela’s 18 years on Robben Island.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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