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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Jennifer Crisp leaves the U.S. District Court in Fresno surrounded by her family after she received a sentence of 5 years probation Monday for her role in the Crisp

It doesn't happen a lot, but every so often criminal defendants get probation instead of prison time simply because a harsher penalty would leave their children parentless.

Does that mean the parents, or at least the mothers, receive a get-out-of-jail card?

Legal professionals say no. But with the wide discretion judges exercise in sentencing, it can look that way.

Such considerations arose this week when a high-profile defendant in Bakersfield's Crisp & Cole federal mortgage fraud case was spared the 33 months behind bars prosecutors recommended.

Jennifer Crisp, 31, was given five years probation and ordered to pay restitution of $1.7 million instead of serving prison time for mail and wire fraud, primarily because she has a 10-year-old son. Her husband, David Crisp, was sentenced to 17 1/2 years in prison after admitting to conspiracy to commit mail, wire and bank fraud.

Crisp's central crime was providing false information in loan applications for seven properties she bought as a "straw buyer." That was part of a wider scheme to extract equity built up in inflated home values amid the real estate bubble that popped in 2006.

Terms of her probation have not yet been publicly released.

Options for in-family child care on Jennifer's side were limited. Her sister, mother and father are scheduled to be sentenced later this spring for their roles in the fraud case.

In handing down Jennifer's sentence Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill said he "can't even begin to imagine" what it would have been like to have a parent in prison when he was in fourth grade, "let alone two."

Although O'Neill called it "the break of a lifetime," Crisp's Fresno lawyer, Gary Huss, said he wasn't at all surprised because he was familiar with the judge.

"I thought it was just," Huss said after leaving the courthouse Monday.

Kern County Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman begged to differ.

"What kind of message does it send as far as taking responsibility and paying a price for a crime they committed?" he asked Tuesday.

"Do we lock up people because they don't have kids?" he asked. Crisp's sentence is "not even a slap on the wrist. It's a slight inconvenience to be on probation."

Bakersfield defense attorney Michael Lukehart disagreed, saying the judge simply looked at the value to society of incarcerating the mother versus not ruining the child's life.

What's more, Jennifer Crisp is no danger to the public at this point because she was not a prime mover in the case, he said.

"It's not as if (O'Neill) is soft on crime," Lukehart said. "Look at what he did to the old man (David Crisp). That is a lot of time."

Local real estate appraiser Gary Crabtree said he thought justice was served, too, and that a more severe sentence for Jennifer would have been too hard on the son.

"That poor kid is going to have enough stuff on his plate at least for 18 or 20 years," he said.

The case demonstrates the discretion judges enjoy so they can take into account diverse factors in sentencings, said Anders Kaye, associate professor of law at San Diego's Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

He said it's "not unheard of" for judges to invoke such factors when sentencing, but it's not common either, "and so it's always of interest when a judge does take it into account."

O'Neill's sentencing decision in Jennifer Crisp's case encouraged Bakersfield defense attorney David Torres. He represents another defendant in the fraud case, former loan officer Jerald Allen Teixeira, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud in 2009 and is scheduled to be sentenced by O'Neill June 2.

Although he said Teixeira's circumstances are different from Jennifer Crisp's, Torres noted that his client, too, has a young child.

He called O'Neill a fair judge with a reputation for thinking outside the box. He added that the judge took a courageous stance in handing down a sentence very different from what prosecutors had asked for.

"I'm hoping that the judge gives him the same consideration (to Teixeira) that he did to Mrs. Crisp," he said.