Federal prosecutor warns wrongdoers to stay straight or face certain punishment

photo Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Winne at rear, speaks during a monthly meeting with felony offenders about the consequences they face if convicted of a gun or drug crime from now on. The focus is on helping felons re-enter society and stay out of trouble in the future.

Some perched forward, elbows on their knees. Others slouched back in the cushioned chairs, eyes drooping with sleep. The group of nine were told to be here on this Thursday morning for a little information.

First, the good news. There are programs. Programs for GED, career education, drug and psychological counseling, job placement. All of these are here. Just take a sheet of paper and talk with your probation or parole officer.

Now, a fair warning.

Federal prosecutor Scott Winne stands before the group. He says he's glad they have those programs. It's good that they have choices.

"That is one way to go," Winne says. "The other way to go is to continue criminal conduct."

Over the next 20 minutes Winne shares how things work in federal court to the nine probationers and parolees, eight men and one woman, seated before him on the sixth floor of the Chattanooga State Office Building overlooking McCallie Avenue.

He talks about guns, ammunition and drugs. He talks about how, although U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has advised prosecutors to steer away from mandatory minimum sentences in nonviolent, first-offender cases, that directive doesn't apply to them.

This program has been going for two years. It's simple: A federal prosecutor comes to the monthly meeting of new Tennessee probationers and parolees and shares with them the possible consequences if they decide to continue committing crimes.

This week's meeting was held the same day as Chattanooga's first call-in as part of an anti-violence initiative. This meeting seeks to curb recidivism among state felons while Chattanooga's Violence Reduction Initiative targets those connected to gun violence.

U.S. Attorney Bill Killian plans to expand the program to other cities in his district -- Greeneville, Knoxville, Johnson City and others. His office did not provide dates of when the new meetings would begin.

Killian, a criminal defense attorney before becoming the lead federal prosecutor in Tennessee's eastern district, started sending his assistants to this meeting two years ago.

He told Winne, "Let's let people know, let's at least give people the chance to know what's going to happen if they keep committing crimes."

So each month they come.

Winne talks about how he can't count the number of times he's sat in federal court and heard from defendants' rap sheets that they've been in and out of local jails for short stints and committed multiple felonies but never served extended prison time.

"And then the judge will say, 'I know this is going to come as a shock to you' ...,"

And it almost always does shock the man or woman in chains. Five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, life in prison. No parole.

The probationers nod along.

Drug charges that, with a plea bargain, would have gotten them a reduced sentence? Not in federal court.

"Again, these are very dire consequences," Winne says. "There will be prison time in federal court."

The office had a 94 percent conviction rate last year.

From memory, Winne rips through the results of certain drug convictions -- 280 grams of crack cocaine or 50 grams of methamphetamine or 5 kilograms of powder cocaine.

First-time drug offense? 10 years.

One prior drug offense? 20 years.

Two or more prior drug offenses? Life. Mandatory. No parole.

After the meeting Jeremy Ellis, a 21-year-old Chattanoogan, walked out with his girlfriend, Chelsie Wilkey.

The prison times got Ellis' attention. He's on probation for a marijuana possession with intent to resell.

"I'm not doing none of that no more," Ellis says. "This is one step before prison ... that's what the judge said."

His interest? Getting one of those jobs the probation officers talked about, something at a warehouse, a factory. A job with a chance for advancement.

Wilkey's not in trouble; his girlfriend drove him there.

"I keep him out of trouble," she says.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.

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