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Old 03-18-2003, 05:22 PM
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Default Prison sentences in S. Illinois are called nation's longest

By MICHAEL SHAW Post-Dispatch
updated: 03/15/2003 07:36 PM



In the same winsome drawl that sometimes sends criminals off to prison with a little homespun advice, the chief federal judge for Southern Illinois set out to explain why sentences in his district are rated as the nation's longest.

"East St. Louis is at the confluence of several major interstate highways, conduits for drug trafficking," said U.S. District Judge G. Patrick Murphy.

It was Murphy's opening line in an intricate accounting that ranged from the district's high volume of penalty-heavy drug crimes to the conservative appellate judges in Chicago who look over his trial judges' shoulders.

The explanations may be complicated, but the statistics driving the question are not: A judicial watchdog group calculates that the Southern District of Illinois has delivered the most severe federal sentences, on average, for each of the past three years.

The average sentence for felons in court at East St. Louis was twice as high as at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse, within sight just across the Mississippi River in downtown St. Louis.

It does not necessarily mean that a criminal would get twice as much time for the same crime under the same circumstances. But when all sentences are averaged, Southern Illinois is unsurpassed.

Using data provided by federal prosecutors, a Syracuse University group calculated that Southern Illinois led the system in average sentence length for the past three years, and in median sentence length for the past two. The group released its figures for 2002, which apply to only federal courts, earlier this year.

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, at Syracuse, the average prison sentence in Southern Illinois in 2002 was 107 months, or slightly less than nine years. The national average was 43 months. In Eastern Missouri, it was 48 months.

Looking to a different set of numbers, the U.S. Sentencing Commission put Southern Illinois first in median sentences and a close second in average sentence length for 2001. The commission, whose reports lag behind TRAC's, uses data from courts, not prosecutors.

The differences between the reports are attributable to the methods used to make calculations, Syracuse professor Susan Long said.

Southern Illinois prosecutors aren't crowing, and criminal defense lawyers aren't complaining. At least not publicly. But the figures are raising some eyebrows.

"It's nothing to be proud of," said criminal defense lawyer John Stobbs, whose office is in East Alton. He said long sentences themselves do not represent justice. Based on his own observations, Stobbs said he believes the trend has peaked and may be on the way down.

While nobody is able to provide a single, definitive explanation, drug charges seem to play a major role.

According to the Sentencing Commission, drug cases made up 66.4 percent of the Southern Illinois district's criminal cases in 2001. Nowhere else was there a comparable proportion of drug crimes, which draw heavy penalties. Only a few districts had a drug docket above 50 percent.

Said Judge Murphy: "Geographically, we don't have much suburban area. We have the white world of methamphetamine and the black world of crack cocaine." The district is made up of Illinois' southernmost 38 counties, with about 1.26 million residents.

Mark Carallo, spokesman for the Justice Department, cautioned against reading too much meaning into statistics. "It might mean there are more drug crimes being committed there per capita," Carallo said. "The types of cases filed by each office are dictated by the priorities set by the U.S. attorney."

The U.S. attorney who sets the priorities for Southern Illinois, Miriam Miquelon, declined to comment for this story.


Guidelines from 1986




The conventional wisdom is that handling lots of drug cases pushes the average sentence lengths up. That's also the opinion of Richard Parsons, the federal public defender for the Central District of Illinois, in Peoria.

"The crack cocaine guidelines are Draconian," he said.

The guidelines Parsons mentioned were enacted by Congress in 1986 to impose consistency among federal trial judges in the sentences they issue. The rules take a variety of factors into account, including the nature of the crime, the defendant's criminal record, whether a firearm was used and much more.

Since there are guidelines, it would seem that Southern Illinois should be in line when its drug dealers' sentences are compared to those of similar criminals in other districts. But it's not. In 2001, the average drug dealer sentenced in the East St. Louis court received nearly twice as much prison time as one in St. Louis, where penalties were still above the national average.

To account for that, Southern Illinois judges suggest that they must be following the sentencing rules more closely.

Or perhaps part of the statistical disparity is an illusion, created by the way judges account for time off a sentence granted to defendants who cooperate in nailing their accomplices.

One method is called a "downward departure" from the usual guidelines and is applied when the sentence is handed down.

In Arizona in 2001, 60 percent of criminal defendants got one. In many districts the figure was over half. In Eastern Missouri the figure was 27 percent. But in Southern Illinois, it was only 15 percent.

The reason, Murphy suggested, is that the appellate court judges in his circuit are very conservative and don't like to approve of the time off.

But Parsons, the Central Illinois public defender, objects to that premise. He notes that the same 7th Circuit Court of Appeals also presides over the rest of Illinois, as well as Indiana and Wisconsin.

"I don't think that's the problem," Parsons said. "As long as the judge enumerates his valid reasons for a downward departure, the 7th Circuit is not going to reverse it."

He noted that in his own district, nearly 47 percent of defendants got downward departures.

But while "downward departures" are scarce in Southern Illinois, eventual sentence reductions are not. Common practice is for a defendant to get the full sentence at first. Prosecutors wait and see if the defendant provides promised testimony against others later. If so, the U.S. attorney goes back to a judge to recommend a revised, lower sentence.

The process can knock a third or more off a prison term. Prosecutors everywhere do it. But nobody knows whether Southern Illinois does more of it than other districts, because nobody tracks it nationally.

While the practice might tend to inflate the reported sentencing statistics, it does not seem likely to account for the whole disparity.

Whether the region's federal prison time remains high may depend on whether authorities pursue a greater diversity of crimes, most of which carry lighter sentences than drug trafficking.

"The U.S. attorney has said she is going to prosecute more white collar cases, and I commend her for that," Judge Murphy said of Miquelon.

Stobbs, the defense lawyer, said Miquelon has recommended that judges exercise more leeway in reducing sentences.

"I've seen it firsthand," Stobbs said. "I'd be shocked if the next year the sentences have not dropped significantly."



Reporter Michael Shaw:
E-mail: mshaw@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 618-235-3988
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