Many of the defendants who have appeared before him during his 18 months on the federal court bench have lengthy histories of convictions in Tennessee state courts, U.S. District Judge Sandy Mattice said Wednesday.
“They’ve been through the state system, in and out of jail,” the judge told members of the Hamilton Place Rotary Club. “And frankly, they don’t think jail is all that bad.”
Once they land in his court and a lawyer explains federal sentencing guidelines – much harsher sentences and no parole, ever – the defendants are shocked, Judge Mattice said.
“Then what they want to do is fire their lawyer,” he said.
Judge Mattice has served on the federal bench since October 2005, when members of the U.S. Senate voted 91-0 to confirm him as U.S. District judge for the Eastern District of Tennessee.
Prior to that, he served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee from 1998 to 2005.
Working in the federal judiciary system, he said, he soon learned that a crime that would earn a defendant a relatively short time behind bars in state court could put him in a federal prison for decades.
Federal and state courts often have concurrent jurisdiction over men and women who commit crimes, he said. But while state prosecutors are legally required to take all cases, federal prosecutors can pick and choose which criminals they want to prosecute.
Consequently, he said, law enforcement officers – who have investigated a crime that they believe warrants severe legal penalties for the person who committed it – have been known to practically “beat down the federal prosecutor’s door, trying to get the case tried in federal court where the penalties are more severe.”
Often, he said, the cases selected for federal prosecution feature defendants with numerous convictions that go back for years.
Sometimes, prosecutors choose because they want to send a message to the community that a particular type of criminal activity simply will not be tolerated.
For example, he said, a 22-year-old man charged with a series of robberies appeared before him in court. The defendant and his accomplices would go into a convenience store, stick a gun in the cashier’s face, threaten to kill the individual if he didn’t turn over all the money in the store, and then start counting backwards from five.
The 22-year-old was sentenced to 36 years and nine months in prison.
“That means by the time he gets out of prison, he’ll be as old as I am now,” Judge Mattice said.
In state court, he said, the same crime would have resulted in a maximum sentence of six to seven years, and the defendant could have gotten parole and actually served even less time.