Friday, December 9, 2011

Can Blagojevich “mend?” Or is his punishment meant to deter others?

This Blagojevich appearance in Streator was for show. Will the former Illinois governor soon do such labor for real? Photograph provided by State of Illinois

I believe the purpose of prison ought to be rehabilitation, although I am fully aware there are those in our society who want it to be about punishment.

Notice that I didn’t mention the word “deterrence” in the incarceration equation. That’s because I’m not convinced it has any relevance when a judge decides that the way to “protect” society as a whole is to take away the freedom of an individual for a set period of time.

I BRING THIS up because of all the legal punditry that got tossed out earlier this week in the moments after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich learned that he must serve a 14-year prison sentence.

Which, assuming that Blagojevich can behave himself sufficiently to qualify for all his “good time” toward early release, could translate into 11 years and 10-and-a-half months of real time lost.

He’ll be 67 by then, which pretty much puts him in retirement. Which means it is up to Patti now to figure out a way to work and earn a living that can help ensure some sense of financial security for herself and her family.

Because any little money the Blagojeviches had has long been gobbled up by legal fees.

BUT WHAT DOES it really mean that Milorod will lose more than a decade of his life – the period where he was probably counting on being able to work to put aside money that would allow he and Patti a comfortable retirement.

I certainly don’t think deterrence has anything to do with it, even though the Chicago Tribune certainly seems to hope so.

In fact, I think anybody who believes that the thought of Blagojevich receiving a 14-year prison term (far longer than any other political person ever got for their acts of corruption) will somehow scare any other political person into “not doing the crime because they don’t want to do the time” is being delusional.

Such a thought is as fictional as Baretta, the television character who inspired that line.

IT’S NOT JUST in the Blagojevich case. It is something I have always thought for the past couple of decades of being a reporter-type person when it comes to covering legal proceedings.

Some people commit acts that later get them in trouble with “the law” out of passion. They’re not thinking straight. They let themselves get swept up in the moment, then after the fact realize just how stupid their behavior was.

But most people who have any sense of cunning try to plan their actions out to what they think is a finite detail. These are the ones who are convinced that they won’t get caught, usually because they think “the establishment” is so stupid.

They believe they have covered every possible contingency. Although when the cases go to trial, it usually becomes so blatantly obvious that the only stupid person is the criminal defendant themselves.

THEY OVERLOOK SOMETHING major. Or they wind up trusting someone who should never have been considered trustworthy with significant details.

In short, I believe many political people are chuckling at Blagojevich these days and thinking to themselves, “What a meathead!” If they are plotting some action to enrich themselves either financially or politically (for some, it is power rather than money that intrigues them), they’re convinced in their minds that they’re “not as dumb” as Milorod.

The reality is they may be even dumber than Blagojevich (who by his own admission isn’t even close to being a Rhodes Scholar), but that is a topic for commentary another day.

There is one other factor when it comes to government officials who get arrested for acts of official malfeasance. They usually don’t have a clue that their actions can be construed as criminal (although in fairness to the politicos, it usually depends on how strictly the federal prosecutors want to interpret the law that determines which actions are criminal – and which are merely sleazy).

IN BLAGOJEVICH’S CASE, a lot of his tough talk as governor was motivated by a desire to not have the General Assembly walk all over him (which is what some people think the Legislature now does with Gov. Pat Quinn). But his tough talk wound up crossing the line.

If we presume that Blagojevich was being honest when he made his final statement on Wednesday to U.S. District Judge James Zagel just before sentence was imposed, the former governor falls into that category.

“I honestly believe I never set out to break the law or cross lines,” he said, adding later, “I thought things were permissible.”

And then, there’s the part that managed to offend so many people who were looking for more reasons to despise Blagojevich, when he said, “the jury decided I am guilty. I am accepting of the verdict.”

AS THOUGH IN some part of his mind, he believes he did nothing wrong but merely accepts that the legal system has the right to treat him this way.

Personally, if he had said anything stronger than he actually did, I would have questioned his sincerity – merely saying what he thought a judge wanted to hear, rather than what he actually meant.

So now, Blagojevich goes away – just a couple of days after a final Valentine’s Day with wife Patti. He’s in for a hellish experience – one that likely will put him in contact with a large number of people facing time in prison for drug crimes. Not exactly the crowd he is used to associating with. I have no doubt he’ll suffer physically and emotionally and come out of the experience a changed person.

But if anyone thinks that any other political person is watching this and plans to curb their own activity because of it, I’d say they’re delusional enough to also believe that the Chicago Cubs are going to win the World Series in 2012.


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