TIMELINE OF CHATTANOOGA’S VIOLENCE REDUCTION INITIATIVE
April 2013: Mayor-elect Andy Berke first pitches VRI to city
July 2013: Berke marks 100 days in office, promises the city will see fewer shootings by 2014
December 2013: Berke pledges to bring VRI to Chattanooga
March 2014: Police and city leaders hold the first call-in
June 2014: Richard Bennett, the main contact for gang members in VRI, is arrested
June 2014: City and police leaders cut ties with Bennett
June 2014: The city asks for a new community partner to replace Bennett
July 2014: City choses Hope for the Inner City as Bennett’s replacement
August 2014: Police say 58 people have landed jobs through VRI
September 2014: Two of three charges against Bennett are dropped
October 2014: Police plan to expand the VRI effort to target non-gang members
March 2015: Chattanooga agrees to rehire the National Network of Safer Communities
May 2015: About a year after VRI’s start, gang-related homicides are up, overall gang violence is down
September 2015: Chattanooga renews its contract with Hope for the Inner City
October 2015: 11 of 12 Chattanoga police street crimes team members quit
January 2015: A foundation pulls funding intended for VRI’s social services work
November 2015: District Attorney Neal Pinkston says he won’t give VRI cases priority
February 2016: City councilmembers question whether VRI is effective
Source: Times Free Press archives
MOST COMMON CHARGES FOR VRI OFFENDERS
› General drug: 76
› Marijuana-related: 44
› Firearms: 43
› Criminal trespassing: 39
› Driving on revoked license or driving without a license: 44
HEAVIEST PUNISHMENT FOR SOMEONE ARRESTED IN A VRI ENFORCEMENT ACTION
Records show a jury convicted Stephen Lester in December 2015 of first-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery in the slaying of Edward Glenn Jr. Lester, who was arrested as part of an enforcement action, received a life sentence with opportunity for parole after 51 years, data shows.
Despite a two-year effort by Chattanooga leaders to curb gang-related shootings through the Violence Reduction Initiative, the vast majority of targeted offenders have avoided long sentences and significant jail time.
Since Mayor Andy Berke launched his flagship initiative in March 2014, police have arrested 263 gang members and associates and have asked prosecutors to pay special attention to those cases, pushing for the maximum punishments possible.
But of those targeted by the VRI, only seven people received the maximum punishment set out by state law, and most were sentenced to probation, not jail time, a Times Free Press analysis shows.
Most offenders were charged with misdemeanors rather than felonies, which generally carry lighter sentences and can make it challenging for prosecutors to keep people in jail.
Although Berke promised shootings would fall in Chattanooga under the initiative, the city hasn't seen any major drop. Police recorded 63 gang-related shootings in 2014 and 80 in 2015.
Since the VRI began, the city has funneled more than $1 million into the effort, which hinges on two levers — heavy-handed prosecution and social services.
Law enforcement partners offer violent gang members an ultimatum: stop shooting and get help, or keep shooting and face the full force of state and federal law.
For the initiative to effectively drive down violence, both promises must be carried out, said David Kennedy, the national criminologist who created the strategy.
The gang members who want help need to get it. And the gang members who are arrested need to face tougher scrutiny because of the VRI.
"[You want] the groups to understand that when the spotlight shines on them, what they're going to be seeing is not 'business as usual,'" Kennedy said. "There's been some real question about whether that's been true in Chattanooga."
* * *
It's too expensive and too time-consuming for any court to bring every case to trial.
Judges need to keep dockets moving. Jails brim with criminals. District attorneys have limited resources. And, unlike federal prosecutors, they don't have the luxury of picking and choosing cases.
So district attorneys, defendants and judges often strike plea agreements, where someone is usually given a lesser punishment in exchange for a guilty plea.
"Plea agreements are designed to keep the system from breaking," said Steve Parker, a former federal prosecutor in Memphis who now works as an attorney at Butler Snow. "The whole system is set up so that 90 percent of the defendants plead guilty."
But Kennedy's strategy asks police and prosecutors to break from that norm and push for the highest possible punishments against targeted gang members.
Police are asked to make arrests they normally wouldn't and provide evidence to back them up. Prosecutors, in turn, are asked to fight for heavier-than-usual penalties in those cases.
At every step of the process, gang members should hear the same message: they're being treated differently because they violated the rules of the VRI.
"It's not just about the sentence the person receives," Berke said. "It's also about communicating to the group member that the district attorney treats it more seriously because it was part of an enforcement action."
The goal is to keep targeted offenders in jail as long as possible, so the streets understand city leaders are serious.
But data shows VRI defendants aren't spending much time in jail or receiving long sentences.
And that apparent lack of follow-through on the initiative's core threat could be the reason why the gang-related violence hasn't dropped.
About 42 percent of VRI cases have been settled through plea agreements, and another 14 percent were dismissed, a Times Free Press analysis shows. Reporters tracked 229 of the 263 VRI cases through the courts and checked how each one was prosecuted.
Of those 229 cases, 97 were settled through guilty pleas, 64 haven't been decided, 31 were dismissed and 28 people were re-arrested because they violated probation. Another six people received judicial diversion and could have their charges expunged. Three more cases had other dispositions.
Of the guilty pleas, 80 percent of people received suspended sentences — in part or in full — and spent little to no time in jail. Instead, most defendants were put on probation.
The newspaper's analysis did not include 13 cases involving juveniles, nine federal cases and 12 other cases that reporters couldn't track because of limitations with provided information. Chattanooga police released the list of VRI arrests to the Times Free Press.
Presented with the numbers this week, 11th Judicial District Attorney General Neal Pinkston defended his office's work, saying state law makes it difficult to ask for the maximum punishment.
"It's extremely rare for somebody charged with a misdemeanor to go to jail," Pinkston said.
He declined to make a blanket statement about his office's approach to the 263 VRI cases. Pinkston said he would need to review each case individually to explain each outcome.
Last week, some city leaders expressed dissatisfaction with Chattanooga's unwavering pace of gang-related gun violence.
"If you are in a gang and you are involved in violence in our town, everybody would like you to stay in jail for as long as possible," Chattanooga Police Department Chief Fred Fletcher said. "[But] what 'as long as possible' looks like is a complicated question."
Fletcher argued that a sentence of "time served" or a suspended sentence could be adequate in some circumstances.
"If it's a 30-day sentence and they've been in jail for three weeks, then that might be reasonable," he said.
But, he said, a suspended sentence for a felony charge isn't ideal because the offender is back on the streets. Of the 229 VRI cases the Times Free Press examined, 10 people pleaded guilty to felony charges, and six received suspended sentences.
Even if a defendant receives limited or no jail time on a felony charge, prosecutors could still use that conviction to support heavier penalties in future cases, or to justify moving a future case into the federal system, Fletcher said.
He added jail time is critical in misdemeanor cases.
"The misdemeanors in particular we really want as much jail time as possible to send the message that your involvement with a gang involved in violence is getting you something you wouldn't otherwise get," Fletcher said. "It's the whole VRI message."
* * *
In November 2015, the district attorney said the VRI crosses an ethical line by asking him to target particular defendants.
His comments came nearly 19 months into the initiative.
Two days after the Times Free Press published a story on his comments, Pinkston took the the radio. Live on the air, he argued he wouldn't be blamed for a failing initiative he didn't create and that he was required, by law, to treat all cases equally, whether they involved VRI or not. He said Times Free Press reporters took his words out of context in the story, although the newspaper stands by the story and posted the audio of the interview.
"We give all cases special attention," Pinkston told radio host Jeff Styles on WGOW-FM. "We can't sentence someone or convict someone outside of the bounds of the law. That would violate someone's constitutional rights. It would violate our ethical obligation as prosecutors. And it would be wrong. We're not going to do that."
This week, about three months later, Pinkston acknowledged that prosecutors have, at times, paid special attention to VRI cases — like when an assistant district attorney came in on a Sunday evening to file paperwork on a VRI case. Prosecutors will continue to do that whenever the evidence allows, Pinkston said.
He maintained, however, that a defendant's status in the Violence Reduction Initiative is just one factor of many that prosecutors consider, and he hesitated to say his office will consistently push for maximum penalties on all VRI cases.
"Tennessee sentencing law doesn't mandate or require everybody who commits a crime to go to jail for the max amount of time," he said. "It's not geared like the federal system. The federal system of sentencing is much heavier-handed than the state system."
Pinkston argued more VRI cases should face federal prosecution, where sentences are typically longer, in order for the initiative to succeed.
On Wednesday, Pinkston acknowledged that prosecutors have the discretion to withhold or adjust plea offers, and admitted that prosecutors are able to ask a judge to impose the maximum sentence on misdemeanor cases.
"In the theoretical sense," he said. "But that's not how it works in reality. How it works in reality is, it's an evaluation of the quantity and quality of evidence in a particular case, the individual's background and the severity of the charge."
The district attorney's office doesn't formally set VRI cases apart from other cases or track them separately, Pinkston said.
And prosecutors have no formal method to explain to defendants how the initiative impacts their cases.
But giving that explanation — that VRI message — to gang members is just as important as the severity of the punishment, Berke said.
"What you really want to create is an echo chamber," he said, "where they know that no matter where they turn, they hear the message."
Kennedy said it's hard to tell from just the prosecution data the Times Free Press analyzed whether the prosecution has been strong enough to get the message through to the streets.
But he said that late last year, the key agencies involved in the VRI took a close look at the way the initiative was being handled in Chattanooga.
"[We] saw what we viewed to be a gap in that process," Kennedy said, "which quite reasonably could have led to the miscommunication and compromised outcomes that everyone is now concerned about."
Since then, he added, the core partners — including the police department and the district attorney's office — have been working to improve communication and cooperation.
"Looking retrospectively at what's happened may not represent the current state of play and what we can see going forward," Kennedy said.
* * *
Threatening to increase punishment doesn't have to equate to going outside the law.
It could be a matter of communicating a message, ceaselessly and consistently, until a courthouse starts to shift its norms, prosecutors outside of Chattanooga said.
In New Orleans, where leaders have adopted a unique version of Kennedy's strategy, prosecutors have swept multiple related gang members off the streets in a single racketeering indictment, which can take months to build and requires intense and constant inter-agency communication.
To ensure these cases received maximum punishments, assistant district attorney Christopher Bowman said prosecutors changed what they offered in plea agreements.
Before the restructuring, drug dealers might have pleaded guilty to one to two years as part of an agreement, Bowman said.
"We started to say 10 years," he said. "They basically told us to go to hell. And so we took them to trial."
Over time, Bowman said, the system started to readjust itself. The message sank in.
"And now, the 10-year sentence is looking a lot better because they know that if they don't take it, they're going to trial."
Even though laws differ from state to state, this concept is not limited to Louisiana.
In Tennessee's 10th Judicial District, which includes Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties, District Attorney General Stephen Crump is launching a "no plea agreement" policy focused on violent felony crimes.
"The district attorneys in Tennessee are granted wide discretion in how we prosecute cases," Crump explained. "I think every district attorney to some extent sets priorities. And we felt like violent crime within our office was a priority."
Crump said people indicted in connection with a violent crime — a Class C felony or above — must either plead guilty with no charge and sentence reductions or go to trial.
He emphasized the initiative has three prongs: cooperation among involved partners, a vigorous media campaign, and follow-through in the courtroom.
"It comes full circle, back to the prosecutors, to say to the people who don't listen, who don't take advantage of this opportunity, 'We're going to send you to prison,'" Crump said.
Crump modeled his method on similar programs across the United States and studied the initial impact it had on the Memphis court system.
"Did it create problems from a scheduling perspective?" Crump asked. "Yes, of course it did. But overall, at the end of the day, it evened out the courtroom culture."
And part of that courtroom culture involves sending specific cases to trial to make a point.
"I'm fine with losing a case to the jury rather than letting you go out on probation without there being much consequence," Crump said.
He plans to launch the initiative within the year and develop a reliable metric to track the cases through court.
* * *
The pace of gang-related gun violence in Chattanooga hasn't wavered since the Violence Reduction Initiative began in 2014, statistics show.
Police recorded 71 gang-involved shootings in 2013, 63 in 2014 and 80 in 2015.
Police saw 11 gang-related homicides in 2013, 13 in 2014 and 14 in 2015.
And so far this year, the city has seen three homicides — all likely gang related — and 18 shootings.
Fletcher said he has no intention of changing the way the department approaches gang violence.
"I believe it's the best and most effective way to police," he said.
Still, the department will work to improve the way officers handle the initiative, Fletcher said, and he'd like to see his investigators make more felony arrests of gang members.
Fletcher is adding four new positions to the department's narcotics team, and those officers will focus on such felony arrests, he said. A year from now, he'd like prosecution numbers to reflect heavier penalties for targeted gang members.
"I think what I wou ld like to see is gang members, particularly ones we've identified as being involved in violence, getting more [penalties] than their peers who are not gang members, who are not involved in violence," he said. "But I think that's a more complicated question. It's a very difficult thing to assess."
Pinkston said he has no plans to change how his office prosecutes VRI cases, although he is talking with police about the best way to use nuisance abatements, where law enforcement asks a judge to close down a known hot spot of illegal activity because it's a public nuisance.
"Our duties and roles are pretty defined and pretty set," he said. "We'll continue to do that on a daily and weekly basis with all the cases that we deal with."
For Kennedy, whatever happens next in Chattanooga, it can't be business as usual.
"Whether you're in the police or the FBI or the DA's office or in a crack crew on the street, everybody knows what business as usual looks like," he said. "And when something falls well below that, people understand that, and when it rises above it, people understand."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347 with story ideas or tips. Follow @zackpeterson918. Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at email@example.com or 423-757-6525. Follow @shellybradbury.