published Sunday, August 4th, 2013

Harsh federal sentences await gang and drug kingpins, Tennessee officials say

Under Chattanooga’s tough new stance on crime, a felon caught carrying a gun could receive 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine instead of the possible jail term and $500 fine more commonly associated with the offense today.

Mayor Andy Berke’s proposed $212 million budget includes $60,000 salary for a federal prosecutor position. If the position is approved, a full-time prosecutor will be hired to focus solely on gang and gun violence.

And U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District Bill Killian said he plans to give that prosecutor a tool that will drastically change how cases here are pursued. In an interview Friday, Killian revealed that he will lower federal intake guidelines, meaning that, to an extent, it will be more a matter of who you are than what crimes you commit.

“What’s this person’s record? Is he head of a gang?”

Those are the kinds of questions the federal prosecutor will ask, Killian said.

“There are cases we are taking now that we would not have taken before,” he said.

That pins targets squarely on the gang and drug kingpins who authorities believe must be dealt with to make headway against crime and violence in Chattanooga.

This method of fighting crime sends the message to criminals that they will face harsh and swift federal sentencing if they continue their gang activity, said Killian. In the case of a felon arrested for carrying a gun, the prosecutor will be allowed to consider his criminal history. The result could be prosecution under federal law and not state law and, depending on circumstances, a federal prison sentence ranging from 10 years to life, Killian said.

However, while community leaders agree with authorities that something needs to be done to stem gang and gun violence, some question whether harsher prison time is the answer.

“You’re going to keep on putting them in jail?” asked Elenora Woods, who heads the Alton Park Development Corp. “That’s massive incarceration with no solutions.”

Berke said the goal isn’t to ship minor offenders to federal prisons, but to target those in the community who are doing the repeated shootings and who head the local gangs.

“I am committed to using this partnership with the U.S. attorney to make our streets safer through harsher sentences for our most violent offenders as a deterrent to others,” Berke said in an email. “Ultimately, this is one element of a larger strategy to stop violence before it happens.”

One of the first pushes to get the city’s message to the public will be to hand out pamphlets at schools and within probation offices that highlight the city’s approach to taking cases federal. Essentially, that means longer prison sentences and no early release from prison.

“There is NO parole in the federal system,” the back of the pamphlet reads in bold red letters. “You serve the sentence you are given.”

•••

In 2007, after Johnson City’s then-Police Chief John Lowry kept seeing the same criminals coming through the state system, getting out of jail early and then committing new crimes, he went before the board of commissioners and asked for a city-funded prosecutor dedicated to addressing the problem.

The program has been in effect ever since, and current Police Chief Mark Sirois said police have seen the cycle broken. Career criminals are being shipped to federal prison and are not coming back to the community.

“We’ve seen some great success,” Sirois said. “I’m thrilled Chattanooga is moving in that direction.”

Before taking office in April, Berke disbanded the city’s gang task force to unveil his plan to curb crime through a program called the High Point Initiative that targets the drug market.

The plan calls for targeting the worst offenders in specific neighborhoods and then bringing others to the table to convince them to turn over evidence to police, get out of town or seek help.

A key part of the program is having a dedicated federal prosecutor to carry through with convictions and federal prison terms ranging from 10 years to life.

But currently the Chattanooga division of the Eastern District of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which covers nine counties, is overloaded with cases, Killian said. Because of federal sequestration his office is also under a hiring freeze and by the end of the year his office will have three empty prosecutor positions.

With the joint agreement among the city, the Hamilton County District Attorney’s office and the U.S. attorney’s office, officials can bypass the hiring freeze to pay for the Chattanooga position.

Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox and the mayor’s office would make the hire, then the U.S. attorney’s office would train and house the attorney, all by the start of 2014, when Berke said the High Point Initiative will be ready to launch.

The new prosecutor will then be able to decide which cases the city should prosecute in state court and federal court and whether to work more closely with federal law enforcement such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Killian said.

At least one community leader hopes this is just one component to a larger vision to rehabilitate teenage offenders and work with the community to find them jobs.

Local Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lee, a longtime Juvenile Court official, said he sees evidence that the mayor’s office is working closer with the community through the newly created Department of Youth and Family Development, and he hopes the city will reach out to religious organizations and nonprofits as well as police and prosecutors to find a solution.

“One of the things I hope they can do is spend more time to prevent youth crime. That’s an area we’ve got to concentrate on,” Lee said. “We can’t just throw money at [the problem.]”

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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