- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2000

Project Exile the federal program that gets tough with gun-carrying criminals has been credited with lowering Richmond's homicide rate, but the U.S. Attorney says Virginia's partner program is letting felons slip through.

In Virginia Exile's first year, the conviction rate was only 36 percent, said Helen F. Fahey, U.S. Attorney for Virginia's Eastern District.

"The numbers are very bad," Miss Fahey said. "We are going to look into the matter … and see if we can figure out what the problem is."

Virginia Exile is the state counterpart of Project Exile, which sets mandatory prison sentences typically a minimum of five years for criminals carrying guns while committing violent crimes or possessing drugs.

Miss Fahey said she was most bothered by the number of cases that the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney's Office dropped.

"I don't know why," she said. "It's very disappointing."

But Vicki W. Harris, Richmond Commonwealth deputy attorney, said the conviction rate is 72 percent. She said about 30 cases were dismissed or charges reduced because arresting officers filed Virginia Exile charges without enough information or evidence.

Of the 39 Virginia Exile defendants who went to trial in Richmond Circuit Court between July 1, 1999, and July 1, 2000, 28 were convicted and received five-year sentences, seven were acquitted and four were convicted on lesser charges, Mrs. Harris said.

Some other cases were not prosecuted, she said, because arresting officers apparently are not familiar enough with requirements for filing Virginia Exile charges. Police are filing charges without knowing the type of evidence required for prosecution and conviction.

For instance, Mrs. Harris said, Virginia Exile requires that the gun carried by a felon be "operable." A defendant cannot be convicted if the gun doesn't work, is a BB or pellet gun, or imitation gun.

Miss Fahey plans a meeting with Richmond Commonwealth Attorney David M. Hicks, Virginia Exile officials, police and her Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen W. Miller, who coordinates state and federal prosecution with Mrs. Harris.

Mrs. Harris and Mr. Miller meet every two weeks to review cases that could be pursued under the exile programs. First-time offenders usually are assigned to trial in state circuit courts because of the mandatory five-year sentence for convictions.

Mr. Miller said cases of repeat offenders usually are tried in U.S. District Court because sentencing guidelines are more strict for repeat offenders and convicts are not paroled. The average sentence for a Project Exile convict is about seven years, he said, and a three-time violent offender gets 15 years.

The conviction rate for exile defendants is 87 percent, Mr. Miller said, and, as result, "We have found a drop in all violent crime."

The federal government introduced Project Exile in 1997 in Richmond, where the homicide rate per capita was in the top five nationwide. Homicides declined from 140 in 1997 to 94 in 1998, and to 72 in 1999.

Some Virginia judges expressed discomfort when the exile programs began, leading to speculation that they wanted to decide the length of prison sentences, rather than impose mandatory prison terms.

"Some judges showed varied concerns initially," said Mike Costigan, director of Virginia Exile and head of Virginia's Department of Criminal Justice Services.

"But so far, there hasn't been a problem. It is not evident that they disagree," Mr. Costigan said.

"Judges have taken the oath to uphold the law, and they abide by that," said Gary Aronhalt, secretary of public safety and a former police officer and prosecutor.

"It has worked beautifully in Richmond," Mr. Aronhalt said, explaining that Virginia Exile is being expanded to Lynchburg, Petersburg, Halifax County, Chesapeake and Roanoke.

Other governments throughout the nation have come to Richmond to see how the exile programs work. Visitors have included groups from Maryland, which passed a similar law that takes effect in October. The program already has been expanded to Texas, Florida, Colorado, Louisiana and South Carolina.

The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed and the Senate is considering a bill that would give grants from $100 million to governments that adopt laws that are tough on criminals carrying guns, like Project Exile and Virginia Exile.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland Republican and co-sponsor of the bill, is concerned that Maryland's new law will not qualify. An older law, which allows a three-judge panel to overturn mandatory sentences, is the disqualifier, he said.

"That's very discouraging," said Mr. Ehrlich, of Lutherville. "[Crime in] Baltimore is totally out of control."

"This is a harsh program," he said. "But, you know what? The harsher it is, the fewer kids that are going to get shot."

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