Now is not the time to commute George Ryan’s sentence

The news this morning is full of stories about Sen. Dick Durbin’s very public mulling over whether to ask President George Bush to commute our former governor’s prison sentence. Sen. Durbin’s focus seems to be on how George Ryan is faring today. He, and his wife, are frail. To recall why he is in prison (pdf):

• He was convicted on 18 counts of public corruption.
• He structured his office so that hiring, promotions, and raises for staff were predicated on what they delivered to his re-election efforts.
• Equipment was looted to benefit his campaigns.
• He told a State’s Attorney investigating corruption in his staff to lay off “his guys.”
• He abetted the shake down of bidders over the awarding of contracts, and even of a small village over the location of a state prison.
• He apparently raised campaign money without disclosing where it came from, or when.
• He accepted bribes from contractors in the form of vacations and endeavored at the time to mask the bribes by writing checks to the contractors, which they surreptitiously paid back to him in cash.
• He arranged for bribes in the form of payments and loans to his relatives.

Ryan’s supporters cite several reasons for continuing to stand by the man. He got along famously with the General Assembly, and sheparded to passage a legislative agenda that many at the time said was too ambitious. But the reason with the most moral weight is always that, in the waning days of his administration, he commuted the sentences of dozens of prisoners, becoming in the process the man who emptied death row.

These are all true descriptions of some of what George Ryan has done with his time here on Earth, but none of them explain why Sen. Durbin is talking about him now. Nor is it because Ryan and his wife are advancing in age and declining in health. We are having this discussion because the President of the United States is about to leave office. It is no small irony that Ryan’s request that the President commute his sentence is based largely on his own decision, when similarly lame in office, to commute the sentences of dozens of prisoners.

From pay raises to pension enhancements, public officials have long used the tail end of their tenure in office for selfish acts. Now is the time when electeds are most insulated from voter backlash. Whether you see these as courageous or cowardly, they are always opportune.

So let’s not pretend that every fourth- or eighth- December is the time when prisoners subjected to excessive punishments always happen to reach a more proper measure of their debt to society. What Sen. Durbin is considering asking the President to do is not a delicate fine-tuning of the scales of justice but a blunt swinging of the lame duck’s ax. And the proper question is not, should President Bush commute George Ryan’s sentence, but is now the right time? Is barely one year in prison suitable for pervasive abuses of the public trust? For someone who has never acknowledged the breadth of his wrongdoing? Indeed, who has always maintained that “his conscience is clear” despite everything that has been proven? Who has failed to apologize to the Willis family who paid the ultimate price for the Ryan administration's corruption--the loss of six of their children? Who has yet to explain the $156,423.70 that magically appeared in his campaign fund on December 31, 2000? Who has yet to make a single act of contrition?

Now is not the time to commute George Ryan’s sentence.