By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Criminals could spend an average of six times longer behind bars if convicted of gun-related charges under a new Cincinnati program aimed at sending them to federal prison.
Project Disarm was launched in late 2001 as a joint effort by Cincinnati police and several federal agencies to crack down on increasing gun violence in the city.
The project's first 20 cases reveal a sharp difference in the sentences convicts get in federal versus state court.
When tried in Hamilton County courts, 10 people convicted of gun crimes received prison sentences averaging 8.5 months. Ten others convicted of similar gun crimes were tried in the federal system and got sentences averaging more than four years.
The maximum sentences given out show a wider disparity: 18 months in state court versus 10 years in the federal system.
"It's a significant difference,'' said Chris Tardio, agent in charge of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' Cincinnati office. "It shows the system is working now.''
The numbers, released last week, come at a time when Cincinnati officials, police and judges are debating the role of sentencing in curbing the city's escalating crime.
Mayor Charlie Luken, preparing to talk about crime and punishment in his Jan. 30 State of the City address, has called for a meeting about sentences with Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen and presiding judges of the Common Pleas and Municipal Court benches.
The mayor's action followed an Enquirer story Jan. 12that showed of 108 drug felons arrested in Cincinnati Police District 4 and convicted last year, a third did no jail time even though most had prior criminal records. Another third did six months or less.While those sentencing questions continue, Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher and others on his command staff point to Disarm as the project working best.
"The numbers are very good,'' said Capt. Vince Demasi, supervisor of the department's investigations bureau. "We're very happy with it.''
Cincinnati police, the ATF and state and federal prosecutors started working on Disarm just over a year ago.The department assigned three detectives to work on the cases, which must involve a defendant charged with a gun crime who has a serious criminal record. The ATF assigned an agent to work at the police department.
At first, the system didn't work exactly as police and prosecutors had planned. Felons awaiting prosecution in Project Disarm weren't supposed to be allowed to plead to potentially lesser sentences in state court.
But 10 did, while the lengthy federal investigations were pending. Those 10 were sentenced to an average of 8.5 months behind bars. Two got probation, compared with none in the federal system.
The quirk in the process is fixed. Case files are now stamped: "Disarm," stopping them from being resolved in the lower court while waiting for federal prosecution.
The difference in sentences wasn't unexpected, Mr. Tardio said - it's the reason authorities committed to Disarm. But the early outcomes gave authorities real examples with hard numbers. The two extremes:
Andre Bradley, 59, of Bond Hill shot a man in the thigh in March with a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson.
Sentence: probation, with drug testing and substance-abuse treatment.
Christopher Godby, 34, of Madisonville was convicted of illegally acquiring 11 guns. He enlisted other people to buy the weapons for him because a previous felony conviction disqualified him from buying them himself. One of the guns, resold on the street, was used to shoot a 2-year-old in a highly publicized case in Over-the-Rhine in July 2000.
Sentence: 10 years, the longest so far."That prison time means a heckuva lot when you consider these are your major offenders,'' said Lt. Steve Kramer. "That's going to say a lot.''
Besides the 20 Disarm cases resolved so far, 38 cases are in various stages, from post-arrest investigation to pending trials. That compares with about three cases between 1997 and late 2001, Lt. Kramer said.
Now, police hope to convince the federal authorities to take more cases. Mr. Tardio said they would.
"You take somebody off the streets for three, four, five years - that makes a big dent in crime in a community,'' he said. "These are recidivist criminals.''
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