Ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, ordered to report to US prison Feb. 16, seeks to enter a prison substance abuse program. It can shave a year off his time behind bars, but does he really have an abuse problem?
By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer The Christian Science Monitor
posted December 15, 2011 at 5:23 pm EST
Chicago – Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has asked a federal court for permission to enter a substance abuse program when he begins to serve his prison sentence for corruption early next year. If his request is granted, the program will likely shave a year off the time Mr. Blagojevich will spend behind bars.
Blagojevich received a 14-year sentence this month after his second federal trial, in which he was convicted of charges that he tried to profit from his power to appoint the US Senate seat being vacated by Barack Obama. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Blagojevich is likely to serve about 12 years; the substance abuse program would reduce that time to 11 years.
US District Judge James Zagel agreed to recommend to the US Bureau of Prisons that Blagojevich enter the Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program. Inmates need to produce a documented history of substance abuse, and about five drinks a week may make someone eligible, says Chris Burke, a Bureau of Prisons spokesman.
Blagojevich’s life has been an open book since his arrest in December 2008. The ex-governor has maneuvered to tell his story via a book deal and his numerous radio and television appearances, and snippets of FBI wiretap recordings of his political dealings have been aired almost nonstop for almost three years.
But none of that material hinted that Blagojevich struggles with drug or alcohol abuse. As a result, some Chicagoans suspect he is trying to game the system for a reduced sentence.
“It wasn’t mentioned during the first trial, it wasn’t mentioned during the second trial at all, even when he testified. So I think that you have to look at that a little skeptically,” former assistant US Attorney Jeff Cramer told a Chicago ABC affiliate this week.
Still, getting into the federal program is “not easy,” according to former US prosecutor Marcellus McRae, now in private practice in Los Angeles.
Because the program has a mechanism to determine if a request is legitimate, it is unlikely Blagojevich can manipulate it in his favor, says Mr. McRae.
“The fact that you have the probation department and judge as well as all the people involved where this referral is happening, you would think the presence of all those people would serve as a filter to determine if this is a meritorious or nonmeritorious effort,” he says.
Federal judges are inclined to support these kinds of recommendations, McRae says, because they view incarceration as not just imprisonment, but also rehabilitation.
“People think the purpose of prison is purely for punishment and the state doesn’t care how long people stay there. [The Blagojevich recommendation] is actually insight into the fact that the criminal justice system tries to provide paths and mechanisms and incentives for people to come out as productive citizens,” he says.
The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Blagojevich’s request may have originated with Scott Fawell, a former chief of staff for incarcerated Illinois Gov. George Ryan who himself served 78 months for his role in Mr. Ryan’s corruption case. In the report, Mr. Fawell said he told Blagojevich to pursue the substance abuse program because it shortened his own stint in prison by 1-1/2 years.
“I didn’t want to do it at first. I said: ‘I’m going to save a little shred of dignity.’ But it’s the only game in town. It’s the only way you can get time off,” he told the Sun-Times.
Judge Zagel is recommending that Blagojevich report to a federal prison in Littleton, Colo., outside Denver. But federal prison officials will decide where Blagojevich is incarcerated, considering capacity and the attributes of the individual inmate.
Blagojevich is ordered to surrender to prison officials Feb. 16. His wife and two daughters do not plan to move to the Denver area, according to his lawyers. The family’s five-bedroom, 3,817-square-foot home is listed on the market for $998,000 and is represented by Patti Blagojevich, his wife.