Jesse Jackson Jr. and wife get prison terms. Will Chicago ever change?

Jesse Jackson Jr., a former Democratic star, and his wife, a former Chicago alderman, were sentenced to prison Wednesday, continuing a shameful Illinois tradition of corruption among public officials.

Susan Walsh/AP
Former Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandra, arrive at federal court in Washington, Aug. 14, to learn their fates when a federal judge sentences the one-time power couple for misusing $750,000 in campaign money.

A public official in Chicago faces a sentencing hearing in federal court. It’s a scenario people in Illinois are all too familiar with – and one that reform advocates say is not likely to vanish anytime soon.

On Wednesday, former US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. – once a shining star of the Democratic Party who considered a run for mayor of Chicago – was sentenced to 30 months in prison, plus three years of supervised release, for misspending about $750,000 from his campaign fund. He used the money for luxury items – including furs, watches, and memorabilia – and for the renovation of his Washington home.

In the same hearing, Sandi Jackson, his wife and former Chicago alderman, was sentenced to 12 months in prison for failing to report about $600,000 in income.

The sentencing of both Jacksons continues a shameful tradition in Illinois of public officials ending up behind bars. A 2012 report published by the University of Illinois at Chicago found that 1,828 public officials in Illinois have been convicted of public corruption since 1976, making the state the third in such cases behind New York and California.

The Illinois Northern District, which includes the Chicago metropolitan area, leads all federal districts in the nation for public corruption convictions in that time period, accounting for 84 percent of the state’s convictions.

The state’s legendary patronage system, which was established last century to reward political insiders with plum jobs and other perks in exchange for election muscle, is responsible for sending a long line of public officials to prison, as well as establishing a culture that costs taxpayers $500 a year, according to the report.

The Jacksons' sentencing closely follows the conviction of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison on charges related to selling President Obama’s former Senate seat. Mr. Blagojevich was convicted in 2011 and is one of four Illinois governors since 1973 convicted on federal charges of wrongdoing.

Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who is now a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the Jacksons’ sentencing “is a continuing pattern, not a new pattern” of corruption, which suggests these recent cases are not effective as a deterrent.

“We’ve had 1,561 officials to jail and that hasn’t curbed corruption yet,” Mr. Simpson says. “People always think they’re going to get away with it and rationalize to themselves that they’re not doing a crime.”

Blagojevich and the Jacksons were both brought down by a team led by US State’s Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who also successful convicted former Republican Gov. George Ryan in 2006, as well as several aides to former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Fitzgerald stepped down in 2012 and in June was replaced by Zachary Fardon, who worked under Fitzgerald and who focused on white-collar crime in private practice.

Simpson says Mr. Fardon’s office is burdened by budget restraints, staffing limits, and an abundance of caseloads related to gang violence and drug trafficking, which are priorities due to recent spikes in homicides on the South and West sides of Chicago.

At their sentencing, both Jacksons wept and apologized for their wrongdoing, and asked that they serve their sentences consecutively so their two young children would not be separated from both parents during that time.

“My heart breaks every day with the pain this has caused my babies,” Ms. Jackson said, reading from a prepared statement.

Mr. Jackson’s attorneys blamed his actions on severe depression and bipolar disorder, which US Attorney Matt Graves said was unsubstantiated because the defense did not offer expert testimony or an examination of Jackson. “When one looks at the facts, it’s quite clear that there’s no there, there,” Mr. Graves said.

Jackson served in Congress from 1995 to 2012. His wife served as alderman from 2007 until her resignation in January.

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