Star Tribune | 2011

Published by Jennifer Bjorhous March 24, 2011

Hard time not likely to be easy on Petters

Like Bernie Madoff, the Twin Cities businessman will likely end up in a medium-security prison.

Where will Tom Petters live out his days behind bars?

Sentry will decide.

The computer database, located in the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Designation and Sentence Computation Center in the Dallas suburb of Grand Prairie, matches all inmates with an institution using information about the nature of their crimes, their potential escape risks, the length of sentences and other issues.

Not even a judge’s recommendation is binding on Sentry.

But one thing seems certain — given the 30 years to life that he faces, Petters probably won’t get the Club Fed treatment.

The minimum-security work camp up in Duluth is probably out, too.

And according to two prison consultants, maximum security facilities are probably out, too, because the 52-year-old Wayzata businessman is a white-collar criminal with no violent criminal history.

Beyond that it’s pretty much a crapshoot. The Bureau of Prisons says it’s impossible to guess where an inmate will get shipped after they’re sentenced. Although the bureau tries to house inmates within 500 miles of their homes so they can retain ties to family and community, sometimes it just comes down to finding a bed in the overcrowded federal prison system, said bureau spokeswoman Felicia Ponce.

The Bureau of Prisons puts significant weight on both the judge’s recommendation and the presentencing report done by the U.S. Probation Office — what former-inmate-turned-prison-consultant Larry Levine called “The Bible.”

U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle ordered the presentencing report after jurors found Petters guilty on all 20 counts Wednesday. The report usually takes about six weeks, his clerk said. Then defense and prosecutors get to weigh in on the report. Petters is expected to be sentenced in two to four months.

The presentence report includes an interview with the inmate, information about his health and behavior, more details about the crime and where the inmate falls in the sentencing guidelines, among other things. The court puts a lot of weight on the report, said Levine, who heads Wall Street Prison Consultants.

Levine, who said he served time in several prisons for securities fraud, narcotics trafficking and obstruction of justice, lives in Los Angeles and has made a career of helping offenders negotiate the federal prison system.

Levine and another prison consultant, criminal defense attorney Alan Ellis in Mill Valley, Calif., said they thought Petters would probably land in a medium-security prison, as epic swindler Bernie Madoff did.

Madoff, sentenced to 150 years for masterminding an astounding Ponzi scheme that bilked investors out of tens of billions of dollars, is at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina.

“Madoff hit the inmate lottery by getting Butner because it’s very well run,” Ellis said.

Ellis said it’s likely that Petters will be sent to a medium-security facility somewhere in the bureau’s North Central Region. That means Littleton, Colo.; Florence, Colo.; Greenville, Ill.; Leavenworth, Kan.; Oxford, Wis.; Pekin, Ill.; or Terre Haute, Ind., Ellis said.

Levine said that Petters’ biggest challenge will be the prison staff, not the other inmates.

“When they find high-profile people, they like to demean them …” he said.

As for the inmates, just assimilate, Levine said. Don’t sit on anybody’s bunk. Don’t change the television channel, cut in line, or rat on anybody, he said.

And in the case of Petters: Don’t sell anybody any phantom electronics.