The historic shift in criminal justice philosophy by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama’s administration reflects the direction in which state and federal prosecutors in Shelby County already have been heading for several years.
The county’s top prosecutors say that is the result of their cooperative efforts to battle crime more strategically in recent years.
“The statistics show we can’t lock our way up out of the criminal element that we have here,” U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “Before making those charging decisions … we’re sitting down and looking to see which individual we should take on the state side, on the federal side.”
The program is hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News.
Holder made that process more formal for federal prosecutors across the country this month, with new guidelines that emphasize reserving charges for federal crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences for violent, career criminal defendants and for crimes involving gangs.
For non-violent offenders, the alternative is charges that allow for diversion or treatment programs or for re-entry court programs in which their release from prison comes with recovery programs.
Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich said her office is already using that approach.
“The low-level drug offenders … those are the ones we prosecute,” she said on the program. “Even on the state side, we are not locking up low-level drug offenders for years and years and years in the penal farm or the Tennessee Department of Corrections. A lot of those are on diversion or given misdemeanor citations and paying a fine and run through the system.”
It is a change from the way prosecution decisions were made when Weirich, a career prosecutor, began in the early 1990s.
“When I started as a prosecutor 22 years ago, our office was basically enforcement and that was it,” she said. “Now you see the work we do on a daily basis focused just as much in the areas of prevention and intervention. We are not going to arrest and prosecute our way out.”
There also is a shift in the use of federal firearms charges, specifically those against felons, who are forbidden from having guns once they are released from prison. The cases are still being made, but Weirich said changes in state law mean they are also being made in state courts.
“It used to be that some of the worst of the worst always went federal because that is where we could get the tougher sentencing,” she said. “Our state laws have caught up a lot in the last couple of years. Now there’s a good mix of the pile that goes stateside being bigger than it would have been.”
The prosecutors in Stanton’s office are part of re-entry court proceedings for federal offenders who, after being released from prison, report regularly to a group that includes the judge who sentenced them to prison.
“The offenders – they actually have some skin in the game. It’s voluntary. It’s something they sign up for,” Stanton said. “It’s something that is not for everyone. Obviously the more violent offenders and those that have a longer criminal history – it’s typically something they are not eligible for.”
Drug offenders at the Shelby County Corrections Center have access to a drug-treatment program that is so successful there is a long waiting list to get into it. It is so long, Weirich said, that some offenders serve their time before they could start the program.
For other programs at the state level that involve post-release programs, Weirich said, there is some resistance from offenders.
“What’s been one of the challenges is getting the offenders to want to participate in that program,” she said. “So often the response is, ‘I just want to flatten my time. I don’t want to be on paper.’ The mentality being, ‘Just let me stay in prison a little bit longer. But I don’t want to be part of that program. I don’t want anybody watching what I do, even if it means I get out sooner.’ That’s a philosophy change that has to occur, and I don’t know how you go about that.”