By JEFF KAROUB, Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) – A federal judge in Detroit on Thursday sentenced a man to 20 years in prison and ordered him to make $2 million in restitution for defrauding the families of inmates with claims he could help them.

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The punishment exceeds the 17{-year sentence that prosecutors sought for John Wilson, who’s from the St. Clair County community of Yale. Federal prosecutors say Wilson, 57, collected $2 million by promoting himself as a law expert who could win freedom for inmates. He pleaded guilty in December to fraud and a tax crime.

Wilson, who isn’t a lawyer and has no college degree, duped 2,100 prisoners across the country or their family members by offering to get the inmates released through research and successful appeals. The scam persisted for a decade.

During his sentencing hearing, Wilson read a statement in which he acknowledged he “caused hardship” and said he felt “deep sorrow” for his actions. He asked to be given a prison sentence somewhere in the middle of the 11{ to 17 { years outlined in the recommendation.
Wilson described having a childhood with no father. His dad died when he was 10 and he was raised by his mother and four stepsisters.

“I truly missed having a father figure,” Wilson said. “But it doesn’t mean I had a right to break the law.”

Judge Robert Cleland said he chose to give Wilson a longer sentence than the government recommendation because of the “unusual extensiveness” of Wilson’s criminal enterprise. He said Wilson was imprisoned twice for fraudulent conduct and that given his story, there’s a “fairly strong” likelihood of him committing more crimes.

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“He enlisted other people, he targeted vulnerable victims and extracted money from them,” Cleland said. “This is the right sentence for this defendant under these circumstances. Period.”

Cleland also agreed with defense attorneys’ request for Wilson to undergo mental health and substance abuse treatment in prison but declined to recommend that he be sent to Milan federal prison, which would be closer to family in Michigan.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Resnick Cohen has said Wilson was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who targeted poor, vulnerable families whose loved ones were in prison. She said his statement revealed his “history of thinking of himself and not the consequences” of his crimes on victims.

Wilson’s attorney, Joan Morgan, declined comment after the hearing. In court, she argued that even the negotiated sentencing range was “very severe.”

“For the court to give him anything over (the negotiated sentence) is life without parole, given his age,” she said.

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