Fed up with state sentencing laws they say are too lax against violent criminals, federal and local prosecutors have joined forces in the last year in the Sacramento region to steer some prosecutions into federal courts where defendants frequently face much longer sentences.
The push, outlined by Sacramento-based U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott on Wednesday in a news conference with other law enforcement leaders, has led to more than 200 prosecutions in the region in the last years and sent repeat offenders away to federal prisons far from their California crime networks, officials say.
“Rather than going to Folsom to do their time, they’re going to Leavenworth to do their time,” Scott said in releasing results from the Justice Department’s Project Safe Neighborhoods program.
Scott said the program is aimed at reducing violent crime through a variety of efforts, including undercover operations by agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that have taken 1,296 firearms and “ghost guns” off city streets in the last year.
Prosecutors in his office also are meeting regularly with district attorneys in Northern California to assess the danger some suspects pose and decide whether their cases should be steered to federal courts, where defendants frequently face tougher penalties and serve more of their sentences. In state prison, officials said, a defendant serves an average of half their sentence – and often less – while federal prisoners average spending about 85 percent of their sentence in prison.
Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert outlined the difficulty her office had prosecuting a suspect with a history of violence, drug, theft and weapons arrests.
Over a 15-year period beginning in 2000, John Allan Trotter was in and out of county jails and state prisons for various offenses, including a 2005 case in which he received a three-year sentence and served only one year, Schubert said.
Last February, Trotter, whose tattoos include one on his head that reads “F--- YOU PAY ME,” showed up on Sacramento Sheriff’s deputies radar again, this time fleeing a patrol car through a residential neighborhood at 50 mph before crashing the car and running away, court documents say.
Detectives caught up to him in a backyard and found a black pouch nearby with a .380-caliber handgun and 30 grams of methamphetamine, court records say.
Rather than try him in Superior Court, federal prosecutors charged him with possessing a firearm in a drug trafficking case. Federal charges in the case required there be an element of interstate violations, and because the handgun – like almost all handguns seized in California – was manufactured outside the state, federal officials had jurisdiction.
Trotter was indicted by a federal grand jury in April, and last month pleaded guilty in a plea agreement. He faces sentencing in January, and the maximum penalty in the case could be a life sentence, court records say.
Officials say they believe the Safe Neighborhoods effort has reduced crime somewhat, and note that violent crime in the nation’s 60 largest cities – including Sacramento and Fresno – has dipped nearly 5 percent in the first half of this year compared to the same period of 2017.
Crime victims advocates have decried California’s efforts to reform its sentencing laws and to reduce prison overcrowding by reducing penalties for some offenses, often with measures that voters have approved.
But the U.S. Attorney, whose jurisdiction stretches from the Oregon state line to south of Bakersfield, denied federal officials were simply staging an end run around state sentencing laws.
“I think it’s a practical solution to state sentencing laws,” Scott said.