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Project Exile: Combating Gun Violence in America.

Gun violence presents a myriad of dangers to large cities, suburbs, small towns, and rural areas throughout the United States. Consequently, officials at the local, state, and federal levels of law enforcement have developed a multitude of programs aimed at reducing gun violence. For example, some programs have included an increased police presence in high-crime areas, gun buyback programs, task forces devoted solely to violent crimes, and, in some instances, lawsuits against firearm manufacturers. Several of these programs have proven moderately successful, as evidenced by a reduction in the overall crime rate in many regions of the United States. (1) Despite the apparent success of such programs, many cities experienced little or no reduction in gun-related crime. In fact, Richmond, Virginia, incurred significant increases in gun-related violence and crime and sought to implement an alternative strategy in the fight to eradicate gun-related crime and violence.

In 1996, gun-related crime was certainly not a new phenomenon to the city of Richmond. The community suffered from annually escalating rates of homicide and gun violence since the 1980s, with such crime rates reaching nearly epidemic proportions in the latter half of the 1990s. In 1996, 140 murders occurred within the Richmond city limits, 122 of which were committed with a firearm. In 1996, someone was shot or killed in the city approximately every 40 to 45 hours, bringing Richmond to the second highest per capita murder rate in the United States that year. (2)

Richmond officials developed and implemented numerous aggressive and innovative initiatives aimed toward combating handgun violence and homicides. One in particular, Project Exile, has proven advantageous for the city.


In February 1997, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Richmond unveiled Project Exile--an innovative, expeditious, and aggressive interagency approach to combat gun violence. Rather than creating and enforcing new laws, this program takes advantage of existing federal laws and prosecutes suspects in federal courts, which can prove advantageous because federal courts can apply more stringent bond rules and sentencing guidelines than state courts.

Since the inception of Project Exile, Richmond has seen more than 600 arrests, more than 650 guns seized, and more than 300 armed felons incarcerated as a direct result of the program. (3) An aggressive prosecutive effort has led to an 86 percent conviction rate through trials and plea bargains and to an average prison term of 56 months. (4) Richmond had 72 homicides in 1999--22 fewer than in 1998, a reduction in rate comparable to that of the early 1980s. (5)

Richmond's Project Exile derives its name from the concept that any criminals found in possession of a gun, or convicted of using a gun in the commission of a crime, forfeit their right to remain in the community, thereby exiled from the area. (6) Any criminal found violating the laws applicable to Project Exile faces immediate federal prosecution and conviction, resulting in a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years. This zero tolerance policy allows the U.S. Attorney's Office to prosecute, in federal court, all felons with guns, as well as anyone using guns in drug trafficking, possessing prohibited weapons (e.g., sawed-off shotguns), or using a gun in domestic violence cases.


Researchers examined the organization of such aggressive and innovative interagency enforcement programs as Project Exile. (7) They found many similar structural elements among the programs recently implemented or under development.

Targeted Offenders

A broad base of crimes and criminals fall within the legal parameters of Project Exile and similar programs, and jurisdiction is not limited to those cases involving guns and drugs, convicted felons, or individuals with a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence. Any person in possession of a gun who is a fugitive from another state, under indictment for a felony, subject to a restraining order, dishonorably discharged, or a drug user or addict falls within the prosecutorial jurisdiction of Project Exile. (8) In addition, any illegal immigrant possessing a gun or any person knowingly possessing a stolen gun or a gun with an altered or missing serial number may face federal prosecution. Proponents estimate that a majority of the perpetrators of gun-related offenses meet one or more of these legal criteria.

Participating Agencies

A combination of eight federal, state, or local agencies actively take part in the prosecution, enforcement, or administration of Richmond's Project Exile. Other cities using similar programs must take steps to ensure a high degree of interagency cooperation. Various agencies participate in Richmond's Project Exile, including the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF), the U.S. Marshal's Office, the FBI, the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's Office, the Richmond Police Department, the Virginia Attorney General, and the Virginia State Police. The cohesion demonstrated thus far by the various agencies helps make Project Exile unique. Interagency cooperation remains somewhat anomalous in today's criminal justice system because many multiagency efforts face conflicts regarding jurisdiction or appropriate methods and procedures.

Successful implementation of a program, such as Project Exile, depends on several factors. Law enforcement personnel must attend extensive training programs concerning applicable laws and other issues central to the program. While stringent legal guidelines comprise the prosecutive backbone of such programs, the deterrence of future gun crime stands as the primary aim. Extensive publicity and citizen education are vital to achieve this, and public outreach has proven an integral contributor to the effectiveness of Richmond's Project Exile. However, providing the necessary training for law enforcement and educating the community can prove costly, thereby making funding an equally vital component of a successful enforcement effort.


The emphasis on expeditious, aggressive, and effective prosecution of armed criminals mandates that all law enforcement officers remain knowledgeable in the laws and legal issues associated with a program, such as Project Exile. Strict adherence to procedural rules can help avoid dismissals of cases that remain strong otherwise. Thus, the U.S. Attorney's Office conducts several hours of training for police officers on federal firearm statutes, the procedural issues of Project Exile, and Fourth Amendment issues of search and seizure. Furthermore, the Richmond Police Department's academy, in connection with the U.S. Department of Justice, has developed and implemented a new Gun Recovery Initiative (GRI), which includes training, enforcement, and organizational measures. (9) The intent of the GRI is to improve the ability of officers to detect firearm violations and apprehend those who commit such crimes.

The prosecutor's office in Richmond has implemented procedures that expedite the handling of Project Exile cases after a police officer reports a violation. The police department's firearms office is electronically linked to the BATF so that officers can immediately trace seized firearms. (10) When a police officer discovers a gun, the officer pages a BATF agent, who reviews the circumstances and decides whether a federal statute applies. If the BATF agent concludes that a federal violation has occurred, federal prosecution begins immediately. Although the highly active role of law enforcement plays a significant part in the success of any program similar to Project Exile, the importance of positive publicity and community involvement remains paramount.

Public Outreach/Education

Program administrators must communicate to the community and criminals alike. The action or inaction of the community ultimately can determine the success or failure of a program that relies on citizens to assist in the enforcement efforts. Community members can assist law enforcement by providing eyewitness reports of events and exercising stern vigilance in regard to neighborhood happenings, including tips about illegal activity. Officials constantly have called for increased citizen involvement and support in the fight against crime. If only one citizen on each block reported an illegal gun, it would enhance the efforts of the police at no cost to taxpayers and would help ensure the safety within their community.

Project Exile administrators have used a wide array of methods to inform citizens about important social issues. For example, television and radio commercials, billboards, and business cards bearing the slogan, "An illegal gun gets you 5 years in federal prison," all have helped to bring Project Exile to the attention of the community. The program also has sponsored radio traffic reports to reach a larger number of listeners during the heightened commuting times. However, the use of city buses for advertising purposes has proved, perhaps, the most innovative means of public outreach used by Project Exile. Program managers had the project's slogan placed on each side of a city bus and had the bus change routes periodically to ensure that the message would reach as many regions of the city as possible. Project managers expect to expand the outreach effort through the use of additional media and direct contact with community groups.


The public outreach and education effort not only has increased community awareness but also has helped generate substantial funding from many individuals and organizations beyond those in the legal and political systems. In particular, the U.S. Attorney's Office has noted the contributions of several local businesses, organizations, and civic leaders whose efforts and funds proved vital to the success of the initial publicity effort. The diverse collection of individuals and organizations that have provided support for the program indicates the community's strong commitment to Project Exile.


Proponents of aggressive interagency approaches that use and enforce existing federal laws in the effort to combat gun violence suggest that such initiatives offer several advantages over the traditional usage of state laws. They contend that using the federal system increases efficiency, fosters interagency cooperation, and requires the same number of employees as the prosecution of firearm crimes in state court. (11) Additionally, city managers nationwide can easily replicate and implement programs similar to Project Exile. Finally, proponents argue that aggressive and efficient programs can eliminate the psychological, emotional, and economic burden that violence and crime place on a community and its residents.

Increased Efficiency

Some individuals consider the federal system more efficient than state courts primarily because it offers prompt indictments and allows fewer offenders to obtain pretrial release through the use of bonds. Reports show that a felon-in-prison case in state court would take about 1 year to prosecute, during which time most defendants are freed on bond; however, the same case in federal court would take about 70 days, with bond granted in only 20 percent of Project Exile cases. (12)

Violating a federal gun law generally carries a stiffer penalty than that of the state system. For example, a felon convicted in federal courts of possessing a gun, or even ammunition alone, can receive up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In comparison, conviction of the same crime in state courts could result in a sentence of 1 to 5 years. In addition, federal gun laws require a mandatory minimum of 5 years in prison for this offense, and under Project Exile, prosecutors will not plea bargain to a sentence below the mandatory minimum. (13)

Interagency Cooperation

Increased cooperation among the participating local, state, and federal authorities constitutes another commonly cited advantage of the program. Proponents argue that interagency alliances are rare in law enforcement and that full coordination between the various agencies helps make programs, such as Project Exile, innovative and ensures long-term success. The unique organizational aspects permeate all facets of the program, from investigation to apprehension and prosecution. These aspects include full cooperation between the participating agencies, from the officer on patrol to the federal prosecutor; a simplified reporting system; and coordinated use of innovative and aggressive policing methods. (14)

Distant Prisons

The federal system offers greater flexibility in regard to the location where convicted offenders will serve their sentences. This can yield a tremendous deterrent effect because some defendants consider serving a jail sentence among friends and acquaintances much less onerous than incarceration in a faraway prison. (15) As a result of the publicity and media saturation that accompanies the public outreach campaign, many criminals realize that they likely will serve any federal sentence in another region of the country. Incidentally, defendants have demonstrated greater concern about where they will serve their sentence, rather than the fact that they will be going to prison.

Highly Replicable

Since its inception, many states and cities have inquired about Project Exile. It generates interest because state and city managers consider it highly replicable, requiring only the will for implementation. Richmond Project Exile officials contend that with a simplified structure, redesigned operational rules, streamlined forms, and on expedited reporting system, any manager can implement this project in several weeks. Despite the perceived ease of replication, several obstacles can make implementing such a program difficult. For example, managers must avoid "turf consciousness among the contributing police and prosecutory agencies; they must obtain full investigative and prosecutory commitments from the various agencies; they must develop an active citizen organization to provide support; and they must establish cooperative ties with the media to help ensure the success of the public outreach/education component of the program. (16) Still, Richmond's Project Exile has served as a prototype for many cities s earching for ways to alleviate the problems of gun-related crime and violence.

In February 2000, Atlanta began operating an antigun initiative, under the name "Face Five," based on Richmond's Project Exile. (17) In addition, programs similar to Project Exile currently exist in Norfolk, Virginia; Rochester, New York; Oakland, California; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (18) In fact, Philadelphia recently received $1.5 million from the Senate Appropriations Committee to replicate Project Exile and recommended to the U.S. Treasury Secretary that Project Exile be expanded to 150 cities by October 1, 2003.


Although the concept of using federal gun laws as the foundation of the enforcement effort to eradicate illegal handguns has many supporters, it also has drawn criticism from some individuals who do not see it as a cure-all for a community's crime problems. Critics agree that such programs can have an enormous impact on the community, but they believe that any reduction in crime is overshadowed by the negative impact the program exerts on minority citizens and the federal judicial system. Members of the political and legal system, from criminals to lawyers to federal judges, contend that Project Exile has certain inherent flaws and that it is not a panacea for the problems of gun violence that plague Richmond or any other U.S. city. Others critics cite budgetary concerns and the dangers of a "blanket approach" to replicating the program in other cities.

Racial Bias

Critics argue that Project Exile remains inherently racist, citing the Richmond-based initiative as an example. Because 55 percent of Richmond's urban population is black, critics believe that targeting city violence results in a predominance of black suspects facing federal prosecution. Conversely, suspects from outlying, predominantly white counties face only state charges for similar crimes. In one opinion on motions for a Project Exile case, Richmond's three U.S. district judges said that the program is not unconstitutional in regard to race, but that it does have "a disproportionate impact on blacks." (19)

Because jurors for state cases are drawn from a defendant's community and jury pools in Richmond are about 75 percent black, detractors of the program claim that using the federal system forces black defendants to stand before mostly white juries. (20) Project Exile officials contend that neighborhood demographics have little effect because approximately 95 percent of Project Exile defendants plead guilty and do not face a jury. (21)

Government Intrusion

Critics also argue that using federal courts to adjudicate crimes traditionally handled at the state and local level represents the federal government exercising unnecessary authority. Richmond's three U.S. district judges agree, stating that the program is "a substantial federal incursion into a sovereign state's area of authority and responsibility." (22) The federal judges also argue that such programs increase the burden on already overworked federal courts by forcing them to hear cases that state courts can handle.

The criminal caseload in Richmond's U.S. District Court has risen considerably in recent years-- growing from 135 felony cases in 1996 to over 400 felony cases in 1999. Some individuals contend that the majority of the case influx results from Project Exile and that most defendants in these cases require court-appointed lawyers. State officials may attempt to remedy this strain on the federal court docket by adding a federal public defender's office in Richmond.

Fiscal Impact

The danger of federal intrusion into state matters is not the only concern, as critics also contend that using federal resources places undue strain on taxpayers and the budgets within the judicial system. Critics assert that it costs national taxpayers at least three times more to prosecute suspects federally than it would to prosecute them in state courts. (23) Federal court-appointed attorneys are commonly paid $2,500 to defend a suspect, whereas their state counterparts receive approximately $350 to defend the accused. (24)

Other officials remain critical of plans to develop and implement Project Exile-type programs nationwide based solely upon the apparent success of the Richmond-based program citing that law enforcement simply cannot take a "cookie-cutter" approach to combating gun violence. They agree that although Project Exile worked in Richmond and other cities, managers must look at the local situation in every city to decide exactly what will work. (25)


The statistics indicate that, over the past 2 years, Project Exile has played a tremendous role in the reduction of violent crime experienced in Richmond, Virginia. Further, state officials project that a similar state-level program (Virginia Exile) will prove equally effective and that the two programs will complement each other in the fight against gun violence and crime. The cities and states that have implemented programs similar to Project Exile hope to emulate the success Richmond has achieved in combating gun violence.

More important, strict penalties and stern prosecutions comprise only a portion of the battle to eradicate gun violence. Success requires a sustained commitment on the part of the participating federal, state, and local authorities. The role of the community and its citizens remains equally important and an intensive community effort must exist to ensure ultimate success.

Measures of the success or failure of programs similar to Project Exile must extend beyond the crime rates and examine the impact on the citizens, communities, and surrounding localities. Project Exile cannot rest on the laurels of success; program officials must recognize and address the criticisms directed toward such programs. City managers should not measure the true success of a crime-fighting initiative solely by comparing statistics and figures from one year to the next; rather, they must predicate a program's measure of success on a constant striving to better protect and meet the needs of every citizen.

Mr. Monahan is a graduate assistant in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware in Newark.

Dr. Burke is an associate professor of criminal justice at Radford University, Radford, Virginia.


(1.) U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond Division, "Project Exile Executive Summary";; accessed March 23, 2001.

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) Bob Kemper, "Risk of Federal Prison Deters Virginia's Illegal Gun Carriers: Other States Adopting 'Exile' Program Model," The (Newark) Star-Ledger, April 23, 2000, 38;; accessed March 26, 2001.

(4.) Michael Janofsky, "New Program In Richmond Is Credited For Getting Handguns Off Streets," New York Times, February 10, 1999;; accessed February 14, 2001.

(5.) U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reporting, Crime in the United States 1996 (Washington, DC, 1996); http://www/ pdf.htm; accessed February 14, 2001.

(6.) Supra note 4.

(7.) Research conducted by authors in June 1999.

(8.) Supra note 1.

(9.) Supra note 4.

(10.) David Schiller, Untitled, New York Times;; accessed February 14, 2001.

(11.) Supra note 4.

(12.) Supra note 4.

(13.) Supra note 4.

(14.) Supra note 4.

(15.) Supra note 4.

(16.) Supra note 4.

(17.) "Project Exile In Atlanta," 2901; accessed February 14, 2001.

(18.) "Dominic Perella, "Gun Crackdown Cuts Murder Rate But Has Detractors," Fox News;; accessed June 1999.

(19.) Ibid.

(20.) Federal jurors are drawn from a wider area of the state resulting injury pools consisting of about 80 to 90 percent whites.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Supra note 7.

(23.) Supra note 7.

(24.) Supra note 18.

(25.) Supra note 7.


On July 1, 1999, the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's Office introduced Virginia Exile--the state version of the federal Project Exile. The success of Project Exile led state legislators to introduce legislation into the Code of Virginia that incorporated the stringent penalties of the U.S. Federal Code. Virginia Exile, the first statewide program of its kind, was designed and implemented to afford state prosecutors the same tools and resources made available by federal prosecutors in Project Exile. The aim of Virginia Exile, similar to Project Exile, provides a community-based public safety initiative allowing politicians, prosecutors, different levels of law enforcement, local businesses and schools, and community members to work together to effectively reduce crime.

Virginia Exile remains similar to the Richmond-based Project Exile in many ways, including the crimes targeted, funding, and commitment to public outreach and education. The program is designed to primarily combat three crimes--possession of a firearm by a convicted violent felon, possession of a firearm on school property with intent to use it or brandishing it in a threatening manner, and possession of a firearm while carrying illicit drugs.

Generating and appropriating the necessary financial resources throughout the state, an obstacle not faced by Project Exile officials, proves vital to the success of such a statewide initiative. Virginia has allocated more than $1 million in grants to provide funds to begin Virginia Exile projects in localities throughout the state. In addition, donations from state and local businesses and citizens will comprise a significant portion of the funding. The financial resources will help provide localities with experienced Exile prosecutors and will make it possible to offer specialized training and overtime pay for Exile-related enforcement efforts. Furthermore, the Virginia Exile Foundation has been established in an attempt to increase funding and public awareness. This foundation is a private, nonprofit organization aimed primarily at developing and implementing statewide advertising and community awareness efforts. Program officials encourage participating localities to develop local counterparts to the stat ewide foundation.
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Author:Burke, Tod W.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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