The first of 34 area men named in an alleged crack-cocaine conspiracy here in November was sentenced Tuesday in federal court.
But the sentence he received was a far cry from the stiff penalties authorities said the men would face as the city stepped up efforts to get the bad guys off the streets and make neighborhoods safer.
Guy L. Wilkerson Jr., 20, was ordered to prison for 10 months.
Wilkerson was a minor player in the alleged drug network and he faced a single count of conspiracy to distribute narcotics. Others in the group face more than 20 years in prison, if convicted.
Wilkerson faced a maximum of 18 months in prison, but because of a sentence reduction for cooperation and a bill pending in Congress, he was sentenced to 10 months. He was the first to plead guilty to his charge.
The bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act, would grant an automatic reduction for low-level drug offenders. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has instructed his prosecutors across the country not to oppose a defendant's request for the reduction as the legislation awaits passage.
In a Nov. 4, 2013, news conference at the U.S. attorney's office here, Wilkerson and the then 31 other men charged in the four-year investigation were labeled the "worst of the worst" drug offenders in the Chattanooga area.
Two more men have since been added to the indictment. Since the news conference, 12 have pleaded guilty to their charges, 19 face trial dates beginning in May and three have yet to be arrested, according to court records.
At the news conference, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke talked about the federal-local partnership in going after the alleged drug offenders as a model for the punitive approach of his Violence Reduction Initiative. For those not willing to abandon a violent, criminal life, this would be the result, he said.
But Berke and his administration have emphasized that if habitual criminal offenders are willing to take advantage of job, education and rehabilitation opportunities that VRI will offer, then they can avoid prison.
Shortly after the November news conference the local chapter of the NAACP held a public meeting to discuss local officials and media characterization of the men arrested.
A number of the alleged offenders had minimal criminal histories, while others had serious offenses including homicide and carjacking charges. Collectively the initial group of 32 was linked to 300 crimes in Hamilton County court records alone.
But family and community members have criticized as racist the roundup and portrayal of the suspects, all of whom are black.
Reached by phone Tuesday, local NAACP chapter Secretary Eric Atkins said he didn't wish to comment on the specifics of the court cases and instead said the group is focusing on a June 14 seminar that will look at the entire criminal justice system here.
"We see there is a lot of retributive justice. There is a need in this community for restorative justice," Atkins said.
"Rehabilitation, re-entry and redemption," Atkins said. Those are the pillars, with a focus on gearing prisons to rehabilitation and preparing prisoners for effective re-entry to the community. That work would then be continued by the community with redemptive efforts to put people convicted of crimes back into society with jobs and education, he said.
That message, likely not intentionally connected, echoed in the courtroom Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice gave Wilkerson a warning that others scheduled for sentencing will likely hear as well -- come back to his courtroom and the penalty will be much more severe.
Wilkerson apologized to the judge and his family for his actions in the drug case.
"I know what I did in the past was wrong, and I'm truly sincere. I'm sorry for it," Wilkerson said.
Mattice was clear in his reply.
"I guess what's going to happen is we are going to find out," the judge said.
"If not, we'll just see you again and we'll take care of it then," Mattice said. "Do you understand what I'm saying Mr. Wilkerson?"
Contact staff writer Todd South at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.