U.S. District Judge David Herndon said Tuesday was a first.
He held up a sheaf of letters the size of a telephone book. The courtroom was filled, extra chairs were brought in and still people were standing and lining the courtroom walls.
"I've never had so many people at a sentencing before. That's to your credit, Mr. Suggs. Impressive," Herndon said.
He then gave five years of probation to the former St. Clair County probation officer and former Washington Park trustee, Darron Suggs. He also gave Suggs more than 26 years to pay back the $64,867 he stole from Medicaid that was intended to pay for the care of Suggs' mother and another person.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Liam Coonan argued for six months of imprisonment, saying Suggs was well educated and well employed and should have known better.
Coonan told Herndon he also saw the support for Suggs, but said: "A message needs to be sent that if you are going to steal $64,000 from state and federal funds and you have this kind of education, employment and public trust, prison should follow."
Coonan said Suggs is a good guy on one side, but there is the other part -- the criminal scheme in which Suggs defrauded the government for more than $64,000 continuing from 2006 to 2012. He said Suggs received undergraduate and masters degrees in criminal justice before he went to work for the state of Illinois.
"There's no excuse," Coonan said.
Suggs said he did have an excuse: student loans.
"I was motivated, not to get ahead, but to pay down some student loans I have out there," Suggs told the judge.
Suggs left the courtroom smiling, shaking hands and giving hugs to supporters. He declined comment.
Defense attorney Rodney Holmes argued for probation because Suggs had no criminal past and had taken ownership of the "mistake" he made right away, calling the Illinois Department of Human Services to confess. He also said Suggs' actions caused him to fall a great way.
He said Suggs resigned as a probation officer and is currently unemployed. He said Suggs let down people for whom he loves and cares as well as his community. Holmes said a sentence of probation would not be seen by anyone as Suggs getting away with anything.
Instead of making the visits to his mother and another client for whom he was billing Medicaid, Suggs would call and ask them whether they were OK or needed anything, which was wrong, Holmes said.
Holmes said a lot of times in his work as a defense attorney he has had to look for things to say about a client. In Suggs case he said the list of good things was long, including serving as a mentor to community youth.
"One of the things about being human is that we all are subject to frailties. Education and money don't alleviate that. Mr. Suggs has stumbled," Holmes said.
Herndon said he and other judges have noted how many Medicaid fraud cases are coming before them. His cases included a fraudulent caregiver with an extensive criminal history and one whose negligence led to a death.
"It's a dangerous thing in any community if you have programs designed to help people like Mr. Suggs' mother who needs some help. The government steps in and creates a program where they pay normal people without necessary medical training to help these people. That's a great thing.
"But, there are people who're philosophically opposed to these programs and they point out this type of thing like this case. The more fraud there is, the more fuel there is for this fire," Herndon said.
Besides the social side, Herndon said there is the cold-blooded criminal side.
"It's flat out wrong to do something like that. It doesn't matter whether you steal from the government or me, it's not right. You shouldn't do that," Herndon said. "It's all pretty much the same, just a little less violent than sticking a gun in somebody's face."
When Herndon said he was sentencing Suggs to five years of probation, the courtroom erupted into loud, long rounds of applause and shouts of "Thank you, judge," "Thank you, Jesus," "Thank you, God" and "Yes." Smiles flashed on the faces of community activists, pastors, individuals who work with youth and local politicians.
Suggs was ordered to pay restitution and started Tuesday with a $1,000. He must continue making payments of $200 per month until the $64,867 is repaid -- a repayment schedule of more than 26 years. He also must not incur any new debt and must report any new income.
After the sentencing, the crowd applauded Herndon as he left the bench and Washington Park Mayor Ann Rodgers said Herndon "made the right decision because of Mr. Suggs' character."
Rodgers said she believes people deserve second chances. "In this case, I believe it was the right decision," she said.
Rodgers said she was not surprised at the large turnout of supporters. "He has many friends and is well liked."