Feds are in the game, and they're serious

Ever heard of Jigga? It was another drug-dealing organization, the feds say. When police couldn't make a homicide case against a Jigga member, the feds went after him on firearms and narcotics charges. The suspect, Darrell Alston, pulled life plus five years. His co-defendant, Anthony Chandler, caught 24.

Here's just a short list of other repeat offenders, the time each got for having guns (without parole), and where the feds sent each to do his bit:

Wallace Allen (21 years in Terre Haute, Ind.); Harry Burton (10 years in Big Sandy prison, somewhere in eastern Kentucky); Darryl Muse (15 years in Glenville, W.Va.); Carlos Watkins (17 1/2 years in Edgefield, S.C.); Karmaan Hawkins (15 years in Loretto, Pa.).

These guys did nothing more than possess a firearm.

The treatment gets worse if the feds accuse you of committing a new crime with a gun.

Here's some expert advice on that from Charles G. Bernstein, an experienced Baltimore attorney who once served as the federal public defender here. Listen up.

"If the feds want you," Bernstein says, "conviction is likely. They have the resources to do their job properly, including protecting their witnesses."

"Using a firearm during a felony will get you a mandatory 30 years added onto the [10- to 20-year] sentence for the underlying crime. The judge has no discretion and must add those 30 years consecutive to your underlying sentence. Hence 30- to 50-year sentences are common. Who knows, we may see triple digits, and the Justice Department is not shy about seeking the death penalty for drug-related murders or witness intimidation.

"Once incarcerated, you will do about 85 percent of the time, assuming perfect behavior; if you are less than saintly, according to the guards who will monitor every aspect of your life, you will do more than 85 percent of the sentence.

"Federal prisons are often far away. Visits from your 'home boys,' 'baby mother,' kids and family will be rare. For example, the federal prison at Jonesville, Va., on the Tennessee border, is a bear to get to -- your visitors must fly to Charlotte, North Carolina, or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, change planes to Tri-Cities, Tennessee, and then rent a car and drive an hour or two to the FCI. Or, they can drive 10-12 hours each way. ... In short, do not expect a lot of visits during your 30 or 50 years at an FCI. You will have a lonely, desolate existence, not a life.

"Further jacking up your sentence, as if any more were needed, are provisions making it very easy for Uncle Sam to label you a 'career offender' or 'armed career offender.' ... "The real kicker that surprises so many 'home boys' is how little is required to earn these titles. ... What you thought was a 'little' Maryland District Court assault charge and a single, petty drug distribution where you got PBJs [probations before judgment] will suffice to label you a 'career offender,' and you will catch 30 to 50 years without parole far away from anything that resembles home."

Argue their merits, if you like, Bernstein says, but these harsh penalties and policies exist, and they're being vigorously pursued.

"Therefore," Bernstein says, "unless you wish to spend many decades in an isolated stone cage, surrounding a much smaller iron one, and have every aspect of your life determined by people not particularly friendly or sensitive to your 'street culture' or to you, stop the drugs and guns, particularly if you already have one or two 'minor' state court beefs, including PBJs. Get out of the life!"

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