Two more pols headed to prison

Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi, are the latest additions to our state's hall of shame.

Illinois — by way of a federal courtroom in Washington, D.C. — Wednesday reaffirmed its reputation as a haven for crooked politicians when two of its once-prominent politicians were sentenced to prison.

This time it was former Chicago U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi Jackson. The two University of Illinois law school graduates were sentenced to 24 months in prison and one year in prison, respectively, in connection with the theft of $750,000 over a period of years from Jackson's campaign fund.

Although federal prosecutor Matt Graves said the case represented one of the largest thefts ever from a campaign fund, defense lawyers repeatedly sought to minimize the Jacksons' transgressions as they argued for minimal sentences for their clients. Defense lawyers also cited Jesse Jackson Jr.'s mental health issues and the effect of the imprisonment of both Jacksons on their children as a reason to impose lesser sentences.

Obviously, those arguments made an impression on U.S. Judge Amy Berman Jackson because she imposed sentences substantially less than the maximum allowed under the separate guilty plea agreements negotiated with prosecutors. The judge also agreed to a defense request that the two serve their sentences consecutively, first Jesse Jackson Jr. and then Sandi Jackson, so their two children will have at least one parent with them during the next 3-1/2 years.

Jesse Jackson Jr. faced a maximum sentence of four years in prison for his thefts while Sandi Jackson, who pleaded guilty to income tax violations, faced a potential 18-month sentence.

Instead, both received substantial reductions.

Any sentence of incarceration has to be considered harsh, at least to some degree. But given the details of this case, the Jacksons came out of it very well.

Obviously, neither of them poses a threat to public safety and their opportunities to engage in similar criminal conduct in the future are virtually nonexistent since they're both now out of government. But the law also emphasizes the importance of punishing wrongdoers, particularly those who should know better, as well as deterring others from engaging in similar behavior.

Frankly, the sentences imposed don't promote either punishment or deterrence. This case involved the theft of a huge sum of money over a period of years. If the Jacksons had not been caught, they would have continued their illicit conduct.

Still, it was a good day for justice and the people of Illinois. It always is when elected officials who betray the public trust get their just desserts.

Jackson Jr., who served 17 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, often spoke of running for higher office, including mayor of Chicago. He clearly sought appointment to President Obama's U.S. Senate seat after Obama was elected president in 2008, and his involvement in negotiations over the appointment — remember, former Gov. Blagojevich was convicted of trying to sell the seat to the highest bidder — raised questions about his character.

As for Sandi Jackson, she was a member of the Chicago City Council, collecting a handsome paycheck for holding that post even though she spent most of her time at the Jacksons' opulent Washington, D.C., residence.

Their incomes just from their governmental salaries alone were in the $300,000 range. Yet they plundered Jackson's congressional campaign account to pay for everything from household electronic items to a $43,000 Rolex watch.

But they were far from high-living celebrities when they appeared in court. Both wept profusely, expressed remorse and sought forgiveness. In other words, it was the usual act by Illinois politicians chagrined over being caught with their hands in the cookie jar, one the people of this state will see again in the not-too-distant future.

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