An anti-crime program that was said to have helped thwart violent offenses in Richmond could be revived and expanded statewide, including Loudoun County.
Project Exile, which formed in 1997, transferred certain criminal cases — mostly those involved in violent crimes and charged with illegal firearms possession —from local courts to federal jurisdictions. At the time, the federal courts assessed stricter sentences, usually a mandatory minimum of five years under the federal Gun Control Act, enhanced for other criteria.
In effect, those convicted were “exiled” to a federal prison often much farther from the local one. Being away from family and friends was considered part of the deterrent. The point, advocates said, was to increase awareness about tougher prosecution while taking the more violent criminals off the streets. Supporters lauded its impact.
Recently, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie used Project Exile as a new campaign pitch.
Gillespie, just after reports by Republican party leaders of a tie race with his opponent, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam (D), held a news conference in late July in Leesburg. Among the proposals he discussed was the “expansion” of Project Exile statewide if he prevails in the November 7 election.
While many believe Project Exile began in Richmond by city prosecutors simply transferring cases to the federal forum, it was actually the creation of federal prosecutors in Richmond, including then assistant U.S. Attorney James Comey.
In Project Exile’s first two years, federal prosecutors indicted 404 people in Richmond on federal gun charges, six times as many as the city’s annual average. Of those, 86 percent were convicted, serving an average term of 55 months in federal prison.
Several cities across the nation implemented versions of Project Exile under different names, such as Firearms in Atlanta Can Equal 5 (FACE 5).
When Comey was appointed as director of the FBI, he was often cited with the success of Project Exile.
Opponents of Project Exile charged that federal prosecutors at that time, including Comey, were motivated to boast about higher conviction rates to help enhance their career paths.
When the smoke cleared, Virginia sentencing reform was already taking effect.
The project quickly and quietly faded out of use, where it remains now.
Debate over effectiveness
Since its inception, there has been much debate over Project Exile’s effectiveness. Opponents also challenged the viability both on the outcome and financial motivation.
One of most comprehensive studies by two economists in 2003 challenged Project Exile. It claimed that while Richmond appeared to be getting safer in the years following Project Exile’s implementation, the city crime numbers would probably have fallen without the program’s sentence enhancement.
Richmond experienced a large spike in violent crime just as prosecutors started Project Exile in 1996, and the number of shootings would have fallen from the anomaly without a violence intervention program, the study concluded.
By the time Project Exile took effect, Virginia had virtually abolished parole in a hard-line sentencing structure called “Truth-in- Sentencing” to attempt to reduce disparities and send a message.
Prior to 1995, extensive good conduct credits combined with parole resulted in many inmates serving as little as one-fifth of their sentences. Under the sentencing reform, a felon served at least 85 percent of his or her sentence. In fact, most felons served about 89 percent of their incarceration terms, according to the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission’s 2005 annual report.
This broader impact of sentencing reform likely is just as — if not more — plausible a reason that crime in Richmond dropped in the years after Project Exile was implemented, some say.
Other cities with similar populations and crime rates as Richmond, including Norfolk, Va., reported similar drops in crime rates without utilizing Project Exile. Still other cities, such as Oakland, which implemented a version of Project Exile in 1999, actually saw homicide rates rise after it shifted gun cases to federal courts.
Motivated by overcrowding?
Opponents also questioned whether the underlying motivation for Project Exile was driven by state prison overcrowding — pawning off certain criminals to the federal system under the guise of harsher punishment for some criminal acts so the state would not have to bear the cost of longer incarceration.
Some blame the federal government’s “war on drugs” for the situation that left states to manage prison overcrowding with limited funds. Since 2007, more than 30 states have reduced prison populations, the Pew study reported.
Even at the federal level, arresting your way to lower crime has negative collateral effects. A General Accounting Office study of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) analyzing prisoner population from fiscal years 2006 through 2011, showed that overcrowding in BOP prisons at all levels increased.
Since the 1970s, many lawmakers have advocated for longer sentences and harsher penalties, mainly to advance campaign platforms yet have a snowball negative impact. Numerous studies demonstrate this point.
One of the most “important conclusions” reached in a 2014 comprehensive study by the National Research Council was that “the incremental deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is modest at best.” Put in layman terms: Threatening people with increasingly harsh punishments does not necessarily discourage crime.
Resurrection of Project Exile
Nevertheless, in 2017, the threat of harsher punishment or “exiling” a case from state to federal court as a deterrent is still part of some campaign platforms.
One problem is that Project Exile itself effectively has not been in use for nearly 20 years.
The use of Project Exile as a campaign platform today could be roughly akin to Virginia lawmakers campaigning to create a “Castle Doctrine” law about five years ago. Castle Doctrine is a trigger phrase whereby unknowing voters are informed they need a codified doctrine for certain protections – in that case not being sued if an intruder was shot in a home.
The general public bought into candidates’ pitches, and many assumed Virginia needed it.
However, upon being informed by attorneys, advocates and even Commonwealth attorneys that Virginia has 400 years of case law — which creates one of the most comprehensive and well-settled set of protections of any state — candidates and lawmakers gracefully eased away from their support.
Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman said he’d welcome seeing a program like Project Exile expand into the area if the social and financial impact is proven to be positive. It doesn’t matter if it’s a local, state, federal or joint program as long as it’s fair and effective, he said.
“The goal is to keep firearms out of the hands of violent criminals,” Chapman said.