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Prosecutors' Batting Average

Rod Blagojevich likes to recite numbers.  250,000.  That's the number of children he said would be covered by his "All Kids" health insurance program.  1.7 million.  The number of people each month who took advantage of his "free rides for seniors" on public transit.

But there is another number the former Governor - and all those charged with federal crimes - should consider: 94.1%. That's the batting average of prosecutors working for U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald here in the northern district of Illinois.  Of the cases resolved last year, 94.1% ended with a conviction, according to statistics maintained by the Justice Department.

"Unless you've been there you don't know how tenacious the federal prosecutors are," said Jim Laski. He's the former Chicago City Clerk who plead guilty to taking bribes. Last week he told me a politician's first instinct is to fight, but it's often the wrong one. "When they started playing back some of those tapes to me when they arrested me, I did the Blago thing where I said 'this is taken out of context, I'm gonna fight this.'"

Laski details his decision to plead guilty in his book "My Fall From Grace: City Hall to Prison Walls." He describes a candid conversation with his defense attorney that went something like this: 'We can fight like hell against these guys, but we won't win.' 

Blagojevich and any other defendant facing the feds have a steep hill to climb and the numbers aren't on their side.  Last year US Attorneys concluded criminal cases against 88,821 defendants nationwide. 81,577 ended with convictions.  96% of all those convicted plead guilty prior to or during their trial.  81% were sentenced to prison.

Prosecutors' conviction rate is a bit lower in official corruption cases like Blagojevich's: 88% convicted, 54% went to prison last year.  Those are real people: 645 politicians, government bureaucrats and others who gamed the system and had their cases resolved last year now have guilty convictions on their record.  They include Blagojevich's former Chief of Staff John Harris.  Mr. Harris was a rising star in Mayor Daley's City Hall before he went across to the street to work in the Thompson Center. Harris testified against Blagojevich and now faces no more than 35 months in prison.

A spokesman for the US Attorney's office in Chicago says in recent years more defendants have been choosing to go trial rather than reach a plea deal with prosecutors.  The spokesman theorizes that's because judges now have more discretion in sentencing so defendants hope a judge will be softer on them than the deals being offered by prosecutors.  Just a few years ago an average of only 50 cases a year brought by the US Attorney in Chicago actually made it to trial.  This year federal prosecutors surpassed that number in July.  That means they're getting a lot more practice in the courtroom.  And that can only help their batting average.


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