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Revisiting Project Exile

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VPM News Focal Point
Propelled by the crack cocaine epidemic, the city was home to drugs and guns. In response, Project Exile launched in 1997 and within a year, the murder rate dropped.

Jessica Aber has plenty to say about federal efforts to stem violent crime.

Aber is a U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, a federal jurisdiction that encompasses Alexandria, Newport News, Norfolk and Richmond. In the 1990s it was the Eastern District, under the leadership of U.S. Attorney Helen Fahey and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Comey, that introduced the world to Project Exile — an aggressive program to lower the homicide rate and reduce street violence.

Today, Aber describes an approach that seems vastly different.

“Having been an assistant U.S. attorney, and then the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia for about 14 years, we are far more focused on the prevention aspect than in years past,” Aber said.

Aber pointed to federal grants provided by her office to programs like midnight basketball in explaining their effort to steer people away from the temptations of illegal activity.

She also highlighted other distinctions between enforcement today and in years past — namely, a focus on supporting re-entry programs. And unlike the late 1990s and early 2000s, Aber characterized her office and local law enforcement partners as more selective about what cases go to federal court and become subject to mandatory minimum sentences, which are often much lengthier than state or local terms.

She called the current mission one of “ensuring that we are selecting the right defendants for federal prosecution.” For U.S. attorneys, the focus is no longer on one particular crime profile or any particular location or community.

“We very much individually assess every defendant, every crime,” Aber said, “and that's the dictate from Attorney General [Merrick] Garland and the requirement on all federal prosecutors today.”

Aber drew contrasts between her office’s enforcement efforts and what occurred during the early days of Project Exile. Under the aggressive crimefighting tool, which went into effect in February 1997, anyone caught in possession of an illegal firearm would automatically have charges moved from the local jurisdiction to federal court. There, they would be subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of five years — often far away from home.

Project Exile launched at an especially violent time in Richmond’s history. In the 1990s, crack cocaine helped fuel street-level mayhem throughout the country and Virginia's capital city was no exception. Open air drug dealing, illegal firearms and a high homicide rate earned Richmond the designation “Murder Capital of the South.”.

In 1988, Richmond hit its first triple-digit homicide year, but that rate of bloodshed was just beginning. Joe Fultz remembers it from his time as a Richmond police officer; “There was heroin and marijuana. But the main drug of choice back then, during that time in the city, was crack cocaine. You saw a high level of violence during that time, homicides, shootings, and other vice crimes. A lot of money was flowing within the drug trade back then.”

Along with the drugs and money came guns, many of them illegal, according to Fultz.

“And one of the things we were tasked to do was stem the flow of the violence,” he said. “That was getting the guns and drugs off the street, and taking the people responsible for doing the crimes.”

Fultz was among those who welcomed the Project Exile’s arrival, with its get-tough approach to illegal guns and to repeat offenders. In the intervening years, Exile has largely been shelved in favor of other crimefighting tactics. But as violent crime has inched back up in recent years, Fultz is among those who think Project Exile deserves another look.

One of the project’s original architects is David Hicks, who served as Richmond’s commonwealth’s attorney from 1995 to 2005. Hicks took office as Richmond began setting records for its homicide totals. He won his citywide race for office in 1994, as the number of annual homicides hit 160.

“When we talk about the 160 homicides in 1994, one of the things that also has to be remembered is that still didn't capture the entire picture of the level of violence,” Hicks said. “Probably in those years, we had for every one homicide, we probably had somewhere between three and five shootings.”

Hicks referenced lives saved by the Medical College of Virginia’s trauma center, now VCU Health.

"They literally kept a statistic in those days of individuals who were clinically dead when they came in, and they brought them back,” he said. “Our 160, which is just mind-boggling, could have easily been three or 400, because of the level of violence that was happening in the city.”

When Project Exile launched in 1997, individuals committing violent acts in Richmond were put on notice that they might find themselves banished to federal prison if they were caught possessing a weapon illegally. The message was promoted citywide on billboards and buses, and the advertising was sometimes funded by private interests. Even the National Rifle Association was a supporter and funder of the project.

As an officer of the law, Fultz says it was exactly what was needed: “If you do these types of crimes, consequences — five years automatically for having an illegal gun. Project Exile was used to show people there are consequences.”

Hicks agreed that the project’s approach was effective at that time; he credited then–City Manager Robert Bobb’s leadership and foresight in bringing the key players together to craft the program.

“The parents of Exile were Jim Comey, who was the senior deputy U.S. attorney here in Eastern District; Jerry Oliver, the chief of police; and myself,” he said. “We three were the three primary creators.”

Comey has also been quoted as crediting Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who was mayor at the time, for getting the program started.

Hicks shared the theory behind Project Exile as one of deterrence: “Maybe I can't stop you from getting mad over somebody scuffing your sneakers. But maybe if you don't have your gun with you immediately, by the time you act on getting mad it might be with something other than gun and maybe you’re not shooting someone five times.”

Hicks, Fultz and others thought Project Exile was highly effective, especially when homicides dropped from 140 in 1997 to 94 in 1998 — and it continued to drop. Hicks was convinced that individuals inclined to commit crimes were choosing to leave their guns at home, based on the project’s threat.

“I distinctly remember, probably a year or two into the program, that we literally saw a slight uptick in malicious wounding charges that resulted from knives,” he said. "We were like, ‘It's making a difference. So all of a sudden, someone's using a knife!’”

All over the country, cities saw what appeared to be a successful crimefighting campaign and adopted their own versions: Atlanta; Birmingham, Alabama; Camden, New Jersey; and Philadelphia all have versions of Project Exile. Oakland, California, signed on after Robert Bobb left Richmond to become Oakland’s city manager in 1997. And Rochester, New York, still operates its own Richmond-inspired Project Exile program as of 2023.

But was Project Exile making the difference in Richmond’s shrinking homicide totals U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat who has represented the Hampton Roads region since 1993, has been and still remains a vocal critic of the initiative.

Scott has cited a number of studies on Project Exile that either conflicted with one another or yielded inconclusive results as to its impact on the homicide rate or crime in general.

“The crime rate was going down all over the state and not just in Richmond,” said Scott. "It went down more in other cities where they didn't have Project Exile.”

Among those cities that adopted their own version of Project Exile, based on what looked like success in Richmond, results were also inconclusive. In fact, the homicide rate increased in Oakland, California, after implementation of a Project Exile. Scott said the initiative was a good idea only for politicians who wanted a tough, vote-friendly slogan. For more than 20 years he’s shared data-backed misgivings about unequal enforcement, such that urban communities of color are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement and unfairly impacted by harsh federal sentencing guidelines that are not enacted on other demographics.

Former RPD officer Joe Fultz argued that people living in the urban communities of color are the ones who deserve respite from perpetual perpetrators of violent crime. According to Fultz, Project Exile focused on violent crimes and offenders that were making the streets less safe for everyone in Richmond. He says that is what open air drug markets, crack cocaine and illegal guns created in the 1990s and that law enforcement efforts to stop that violence were not racially motivated.

Fultz also says it should not be the job of law enforcement alone to stop crime. Here, he seems to share some common ground with critics like Scott, when he says that everyone in society has a role to play. “We start at the home, and school is a major place,” said Fultz. “The police are just one cog in the wheel. Everybody has to be involved. That's the Commonwealth’s Attorney. That's the citizens. That's the school. That's the political people downtown, the mayor who runs the city. Everybody has to get on the page.” Fultz says a program like Exile is intended to bring quick relief to those living in the midst of violence, but he says by no means is this the total solution to creating safe streets.

Scott urges others to craft crime-fighting plans that begin with reliable research. “There are initiatives we know that work. Prevention, early intervention, rehabilitation—we know these reduce crime.” Scott wants to deter those who want to bring back Project Exile and instead put more funding into prevention and re-entry efforts.

It seems that this is what the current District Attorney’s office is also thinking. Aber says that the word “exile” is not one that she uses. Her philosophy for today’s Eastern District office is about building trust with community and putting money into prevention and into re-entry programs. Within the past year, that has meant $250,000 in grant funding for prevention and re-entry programs.

The laws used to execute Project Exile are still on the books, but as the murder rate declined in Richmond, the program waned, as well. Other cities that adopted Exile still use it in some form. Several U.S. presidents modeled their anti-crime initiatives after Exile, including the George W. Bush administration with its Project Safe Neighborhoods plan in 2001. In fact, this is still the blueprint for the U.S. Justice Department and Virginia’s Eastern District. But Aber emphasizes that the focus is much less on “banishing people from their neighborhoods” and much more on a thoughtful, case-by-case approach that metes out justice equitably across the population. Aber said, “Back in the 90s, you always had to charge the most serious, readily provable offense, just the maximum charge, the maximum penalties. Today, that requirement has been eliminated.”

“Our primary goal,” said Aber, “is to keep the citizens safe. That's what people want prosecutors and law enforcement to do is to ensure that they feel safe walking home at night, that their kids are safe going to school.” Aber said this necessarily means that some offenders must go to prison for long periods of time.

“But it also is incumbent upon us as prosecutors to ensure that we're selecting the right individuals, the right defendants to face those kinds of really significant penalties in federal court,” she said. “And it also is incumbent upon us to ensure that we do everything we can so that people never get to that point.”

To listen to the full interview with Jessica Aber, click here.

Jessica Aber on Twitter/X

U.S. Attorney's Office: Eastern District of Virginia

For additional reading on Project Exile, here are some links to research:

U.S. Department of Justice: Prison Sentence Enhancements: The Case of Project Exile

U.S. Department of Justice: Did Ceasefire, Compstat, and Exile Reduce Homicide?

Columbia Law School: "Project Exile“ and the Allocation of Federal Law Enforcement Authority

Virginia Tech: An Elaboration and Analysis of Two Policy Implementation Frameworks to Better Understand Project Exile

Public Policy: Prison Sentence Enhancements: The Case of Project Exile


Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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