Rod Blagojevich's attorneys have asked to have him placed in a drug abuse program when he starts his 14-year prison sentence for corruption, though they aren't saying if the former Illinois governor has a problem or if it's a legal move.
Judge James Zagel agreed Tuesday to recommend Blagojevich for the program, referencing a report from the U.S. Probation Department.the former governor’s lawyer, Shelly Sorosky said he will be placed in the U.S. Bureau of Prisons Residential Drug Abuse Program.
But Sorosky said he didn’t know what type of drug or alcohol use Blagojevich would be treated for if the 55-year-old is found qualified for the program. Blagojevich and his legal team have not publicly identified any problems with drug abuse during the three years since his arrest in December 2008.
Known as “RDAP,” the program aims to help inmates with substance abuse issues — including drugs or alcohol. Zagel’s recommendation is only that — it would be up to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to determine if Blagojevich qualifies.
“Probation said he may be a ripe candidate for it and Judge Zagel said [to the bureau of prisons] ‘consider him for it,’ ” Sorosky said.
A prisons spokesman told the Chicago Sun-Times last week there typically has to be a documented history of abuse for an inmate to qualify.
Sorosky said there is documentation.
The judge’s recommendation on Tuesday, he said, stemmed from a confidential report from the probation department to the judge.
The report came after a summer interview between Blagojevich and a probation officer, Sorosky said. Sorosky said he did not know the nature of what Blagojevich told the probation officer about substance abuse at the time — a few weeks after his June conviction — but it caused a recommendation to the judge.
The request could be a move to cut time off his sentence. Prisoners in the federal residential drug abuse program generally live apart from other inmates, work fewer hours and are eligible for up to a year in reduced prison time.
If Blagojevich qualifies for the program, it could help him take one year off his sentence, plus be freed to a halfway house six months earlier.
Federal prison officials get the final say on whether an inmate can enter the program.
Gal Pissetzky, a veteran defense attorney who has closely followed the Blagojevich case, said he's had many clients ask to join the drug rehab or other programs.
"They always try to get some type of a program," he said.
Blagojevich faces 14 years in prison after being convicted of 18 corruption related counts, including charges that he tried to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. He was also convicted of trying to shake down hospital and racetrack executives and of lying to the FBI.
Under federal prison guidelines, Blagojevich would normally have to serve 85 percent of his sentence -- almost 12 years -- before he could be considered for early release.
Before any inmate can enter the program, prison officials look for evidence that the inmate has problems with substance abuse, Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke said. Typically, evidence of a problem before a person's arrest -- from medical records to a statement from a doctor about treatment -- carries more weight than a problem reported afterward, he said.
A sentence reduction is intended as an incentive to motivate inmates to complete the program and get better, Burke said.
"We're looking for anybody trying to game the system and trying to get that year off," he said.
Judges usually use the results of a pre-sentence investigation -- which typically includes details about any drug or alcohol use -- to make a recommendation, though federal prison officials will make their own findings before a decision, Pissetzky said. Pre-sentence investigations remain under seal and are unavailable to the public.
Inmates in the drug abuse program undergo treatment classes and other requirements, Burke said.
Last week, Scott Fawell, who served as chief of staff to former Gov. George Ryan, told the Sun-Times he went through a nine-month substance abuse program in prison after his own corruption conviction, then got six months off in a half-way house plus one year of credit for doing the program.
“I didn’t want to do it at first. I said: ‘I’m going to save a little shred of dignity,’ ” he said. “But it’s the only game in town. It’s the only way you can get time off,” in the federal system, Fawell said last week.
Fawell said he had to interview with a prison counselor when he first reported to his Yankton, S.D. prison. The first hurdle was reporting he drank at least five drinks a week, he said.
“They told me, don’t short change it and say you have a few glasses of wine,” Fawell said. “Go all-out.”
At the request of Blagojevich's attorneys, Zagel also agreed Tuesday to recommend Blagojevich for the low-security Englewood prison in Littleton, Colo., near Denver. About 60 inmates out of about 800 are in the residential drug abuse program, Englewood spokesman John Sell said.
Blagojevich is scheduled to report to prison March 15. Zagel on Tuesday gave Blagojevich an extra month before his sentence starts so he could help his family move into a new home.
Reached at home on Wednesday, Patti Blagojevich declined to comment on the matter.