- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose ambitious Project Exile gun-crime bill was shot down this year in the legislature, took a different angle yesterday on cracking down on gun violence by handing the Baltimore state’s attorney a $1.9 million check to fund a special prosecution team.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, is soon expected to begin a public relations campaign to build support for Project Exile, which would subject violent criminals who use guns to federal prosecution, federal sentencing guidelines and jail time in out-of-state federal prisons.

With more public support, Mr. Ehrlich hopes he can push Project Exile through the General Assembly next year, said a spokesman for the governor.

Mr. Ehrlich said the $1.9 million check he gave to Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy at a State House news conference yesterday exemplifies the crime-fighting teamwork he’s aiming for with Project Exile.

“That’s what Project Exile was all about,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “Exile has worked in other states and other jurisdictions because of cooperation, which means no turf battles, no ego between different levels of government.”

Project Exile was developed in Virginia in 1997 to combat skyrocketing gun crime, especially on the streets of Richmond. Local authorities teamed up with federal law enforcement and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prosecute violent offenders. The program, which won the backing of the National Rifle Association, has been widely credited with cleaning up Richmond’s crime problem.

The aid package for Baltimore’s top prosecutor includes $985,000 in federal grants administered through the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention. The money will be used to pay the salaries of nine gun-crime prosecutors who handle cases of nonfatal shootings and illegal gun possession. With the city of Baltimore facing revenue shortfalls, the nine prosecutors were slated for layoffs.

Another $1 million proposed in Mr. Ehrlich’s budget and approved by the legislature will pay for 11 other attorneys and three support staff in Mrs. Jessamy’s office to prosecute violent crime.

“Losing those gun prosecutors was a very real reality had the governor not stepped forward,” said Mrs. Jessamy, a Democrat. “That would have been devastating.”

Last year, the gun-crime team prosecuted 424 nonfatal shootings and 378 weapons violations. They won 190 convictions of gun criminals who got minimum five-year sentences and 108 violent criminals who were sentenced to 10 years or more in jail, according to the state’s attorney’s office.

Mrs. Jessamy said her office was desperate for state aid because Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and the city council refused her request to fund the gun-crime prosecution team.

“We weren’t asking for more money, even though we do need more money. We were asking to be left whole,” Mrs. Jessamy said. “Nothing happened.”

Mrs. Jessamy and Mr. O’Malley have often been at odds, blaming each other for Baltimore’s high crime and murder rates.

Mr. O’Malley, who is considered a top prospect to be the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2006, was not at the news conference.

“We weren’t invited,” said O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory. “If they want to celebrate the state restoring funds that they took away that’s their prerogative.”

Baltimore Finance Director Peggy Watson said the gun-crime prosecution team was an initiative always funded by the state. The ongoing state budget crisis put those dollars in question this year, but the Ehrlich administration ultimately found the dollars, she said.

“Really what they gave her is what they cut from her,” Miss Watson.

Mr. Ehrlich did not mention Mr. O’Malley by name at the news conference, but he referenced the need to make Baltimore safer — a hallmark of Mr. O’Malley’s agenda.

“There is a difference between saving Baltimore and revitalizing Baltimore,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “It is not good enough to make it marginally better in terms of gun violence. Clearly, if you are going to turn the city around, turn any place around, people have to feel safe.”

He also indicated that the city had failed to provide adequate funding for the state’s attorney. However, he avoided blaming Mr. O’Malley directly.

“I’m not going to get into city politics and all that,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “But obviously, the dollars are not there for one reason or another, and we are very happy to partner with the state’s attorney’s office in this regard.”

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