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A CHAPTER ENDS: CITRON SENTENCED

Citron Fit Profile for Merciful Sentence

November 20, 1996|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — In the end, Robert L. Citron had three things in his favor: remorse, cooperation with investigators, and of course, age.

An elderly, frail defendant such as Citron is seldom sentenced to a long prison term because even a light sentence can be a life sentence.

Judge J. Stephen Czuleger said Tuesday that the former treasurer's age and his remorse were among key factors he considered in deciding to spare Citron the maximum prison time.

"Had you gone to trial on this, [it would have resulted] in a state prison sentence that would in effect be a life sentence," Czuleger said.

But records show that judges rarely send defendants 70 or older to prison or even to County Jail.

In Orange County, only one of the 44 people in that age group arrested on suspicion of a felony was sentenced to prison from 1988 to 1992, the most recent years for which state Department of Justice records are available.

Even in that one instance, 70-year-old Ruth W. Donner initially was given three years' probation for possession of methamphetamine with intent to sell, and was sentenced to 16 months in state prison only after she violated her probation terms.

In a more recent case in Pomona, a Superior Court judge even allowed a 71-year-old woman convicted of attempted robbery to pick her punishment: wear an electronic monitoring device for a year or spend a year in Los Angeles County Jail.

Mary Ruth Blanco of West Covina, who pleaded no contest to attempting to hold up a gas station at gunpoint, chose the electronic bracelet.

State data show that it is unusual that someone arrested on suspicion of misappropriating public funds, among the charges for which Citron was sentenced, serve prison time.

Of the 10 people arrested in Orange County on such charges from 1988 to 1992, none went to prison.

A notable exception occurred in 1993, when Stephen A. Wagner was sentenced to six years in prison for stealing $3.5 million from the Newport-Mesa Unified School District while he was chief financial officer.

Even in that case, federal authorities filed mail and wire fraud charges against Wagner because of public outrage that he was facing only about 2 1/2 years in prison on state charges, after subtracting credit for work, good behavior and time served. The federal charges effectively added about 13 months to Wagner's prison term, after a plea bargain with federal prosecutors.

Legal experts say judges tend to appreciate how few years a 71-year-old person has left.

Laurie L. Levenson, dean of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said Czuleger did the right thing and considered Citron's age in determining his sentence.

Levenson said she felt Citron's one-year jail term "seems like a reasonable sentence given the crime. His sentence reflected the seriousness of the crime and Citron's remorse."

But Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles, described the one-year term as a "too lenient sentence in relation to the incalculable harm he caused thousands of people throughout the state."

"Once again, a white-collar criminal is punished much less severely than an ordinary thief or burglar. . . . Unless we begin to sentence white-collar criminals more severely including more jail time, the general public will not feel that their trusted public servants are being sufficiently punished."

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