A single word might have kept Sophia Beltz out of prison. Greed, for instance.
But Beltz chose not to use it, or anything like it, to explain why, month after month, year after year, she kept cashing the Social Security checks of her dead father - more than $172,000 in all.
As she stood for sentencing Tuesday, the 55-year-old Philadelphia woman told U.S. District Judge Legrome D. Davis that she had been in over her head, that she had had medical and financial problems, that she had once thought she was dying, that the monthly withdrawals from her dead father's account were "easy."
None of that was enough to convince the judge that Beltz comprehended her crime and deserved the mercy for which she and her lawyer had pleaded. Without such an answer, probation would have been a "gift" Beltz did not earn, Davis said.
"I need to know why you did it. I have to know that you've come to grips with it," the judge told her, before ordering Beltz to serve nine months in prison. "It's 15 years worth of wrongful conduct, ma'am. It's 180 separate decisions that you made to receive money that was intended for your dead father."
Beltz's was the latest in a wave of local prosecutions against Social Security cheats, and like many of the others, she was an unlikely defendant in federal court: She has no criminal record and a stellar work history, having held a job at Hahnemann University Hospital for 35 years.
She was caring for her father when he died in 1997 and had access to the account where his monthly Social Security check was deposited. Investigators detected the fraud in August 2012. In April, Beltz pleaded guilty to illegally converting government funds.
The prosecutor, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Reinitz, told the judge that such frauds victimize all honest taxpayers, and come at a time when the system is struggling. She asked him to impose a prison term within the 12- to 18-month range suggested by the sentencing guidelines.
Beltz's public defender, Maria Pedraza, asked the judge to be lenient, noting Beltz's clean record, her work history, and the fact that she was the sole provider for her family.
"Probation is a punishment, judge," she said.
Beltz said she wished she could turn back the clock, but the judge said she had her chances.
"There were at least 149 occasions where you could have stopped the clock - and you didn't," the judge said, referring to her monthly trips to the bank. "This is conduct that needs punishment, don't you think?"