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. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie recently used Project Exile as a new campaign pitch. The program can have a “marked effect” in convincing violent criminals to turn away from crime or face tougher sentences, according to his campaign.
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 in full force.
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’s impact. It claimed that while Richmond appeared to be getting safer in the years following Project Exile’s implementation, the city’s 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, and the number of shootings would have fallen from the anomaly without a violence intervention program, the study concluded.
Study authors Steven Raphael and Jens Ludwig acknowledged that the program “enjoys political support from all sides in America’s contentious debate about gun control, and a superficial examination of the data suggests that Exile may have had a dramatic impact on gun homicides.”
However, they noted that “the impressive declines in gun homicide rates in Richmond around the time of Project Exile can be almost entirely explained by the fact that the city had unusually large increases in gun homicides through the mid-1990s, and that cities with larger-than-average increases in gun homicide rates subsequently experience unusually large declines.”
Another study in 2005, led by criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, had a more positive conclusion for proponents. That report found a “statistically significant” difference in Richmond’s firearm murder rate after Exile was introduced and said the discrepancy with the 2003 study “may be from the use of a longer firearm homicide series” that extended to 2001, rather than 1999.
“We find evidence consistent with an intervention effect on homicide trends for Richmond’s Project Exile,” the authors wrote. “Richmond’s firearm homicide rate fell more rapidly than the average firearm homicide rate among large U.S. cities, with other influences controlled.”
At the same time, Rosenfeld’s team acknowledged that it “cannot rule out the possibility that unmeasured factors are responsible for Richmond’s drop in firearm homicides after Exile was introduced in 1997. However, they apparently do not include changes over time in police size, drug involvement, or incarceration rates, all prime candidates for explaining the decline in big-city homicide rates during the 1990s… These results, although not definitive, amount to a fairly strong circumstantial case for Exile’s impact.”
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. Virginia sentencing reform followed what the federal system had already implemented in 1987, and felony incarceration in Virginia rose substantially.
But the reforms “did not have the dramatic impact on the prison population that some critics had once feared,” according to the commission. The number of state prisoners grew at a slower rate beginning in 1996 than the previous decade, though it still rose by 25 percent between 1996 and 2005 to about 36,000 prisoners. Between 2005 and 2015, the state prison population only increased by 7 percent.
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.
The percentage of repeat violent offenders being sentenced in Virginia courts dropped from 28 percent in 1996 to 24 percent by 2004, according to another commission report titled “A Decade of Truth-In-Sentencing in Virginia.” Project Exile was not mentioned in that report as contributing to crime reductions.
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 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.
The U.S. prison population spiked between the 1970s and mid-2000s, thanks to the longer sentences and other reforms. By 2007, one in every 100 American adults was behind bars – up from one in 417 adults in 1972. Taxpayer spending on corrections leaped from about $21 billion annually in 1982 to $74 billion in 2007, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report.
Besides the reforms, some blamed the federal government’s “war on drugs” for the situation that left states to manage prison overcrowding with limited funds. Overcrowding became so bad in California that in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and forced that state to reduce its prison population. 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. The crowded conditions contributed to negative effects to prisoners, staff, and infrastructure, such as increased inmate misconduct, the study found.
When prisoners are released, those negative effects could impact their efforts to re-enter society and result in them returning to prison, some say.
Since the 1970s, many lawmakers have advocated for longer sentences and harsher penalties, mainly to advance campaign platforms. In advocating for harsh punishments, leaders generally assure voters that tougher sentences would lead to less crime, a statement with little risk to the candidate.
Numerous studies show this is not necessarily the case.
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.
Historically, there is little detailed education in U.S. secondary schools concerning crime and punishment or basic legal principles. In fact, only nine states, including Virginia, require students to pass a basic social studies test to graduate from high school.
Many potential or current criminals, regardless of age, are not likely aware of new laws while planning or committing crimes – even if a program like Project Exile includes a widespread marketing plan that contains warnings of tougher sentences. Therefore, many potential criminals would not have sufficient understanding that their actions would result in a stricter sentence for that crime, and the increased sentence itself would not serve as a deterrent for that particular crime.
Recognizing shortcomings such as that, in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the federal mandatory sentencing guidelines established in 1987 to be unconstitutional as far as locking the hands of the court — thus, they became only advisory.
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, though the U.S. Justice Department unveiled a sister program, Project Safe Neighborhoods, in 2001 that promotes community outreach in tandem with tougher prosecution. Thus, calling for the expansion of Project Exile seems to represent its resurrection.
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 and then attempting to follow through. Castle Doctrine is a trigger phrase whereby unassuming 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.
In his Leesburg news conference, Gillespie proposed bringing back Project Exile to help stem an increase in violent crime in certain regions. He surrounded himself with supporters, such as Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman and Republican attorney general nominee John Adams.
Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham and Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. are among those who have called for the program’s return. Other public safety officials across the Commonwealth agree that action is needed, according to the campaign.
Outside of Project Exile, Gillespie proposed increasing officer pay and more funding to target gangs, including stepped-up education programs in schools and designating the state attorney general as the “Anti-Gang Chief.”
Gillespie proposes that the attorney general would work with the secretary of public safety and homeland security to “develop a coordinated legislative and executive strategy to deploy necessary resources to end gang violence in Virginia,” said Gillespie campaign spokesman David Abrams.
One part of that strategy would be the expansion of Project Exile, Abrams said. He did not provide an estimate of what the program might cost to expand across the Commonwealth.
Northam is open to Project Exile and “all ideas to help reduce crime,” said Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel. “But they must be implemented in a way that does not exacerbate the racial disparities in our criminal justice system.”
Racial disparities are another focus of Project Exile’s critics, citing disproportional targeting of low-income African-Americans.
Northam has worked with Gov. Terry McAuliffe to increase officer pay for law enforcement and called for improving relationships between law enforcement and communities to help build trust and increase rates of solving crimes, she said.
Northam also proposed to reform Virginia’s criminal justice system, including more support for mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, as well as community-based alternatives to juvenile correctional centers.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also advanced expanding Project Exile to more cities nationwide, which seems to indicate that federal prosecutors would be willing to take on these cases.
Sessions was recently in Richmond meeting privately with law enforcement leaders and select crime victims touting the former success of Project Exile.
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.