By the mid-1990s, Richmond, Virginia, had become one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. The homicide rate hovered around 50 per 100,000 residents, high enough to place it in the top five most deadly cities in the country.

Desperate to curb the violence, the city piloted a controversial program in 1997 intended to more severely punish perpetrators of gun crimes. Instead of trying cases in state courts, an approach that often led to abbreviated prison stays in nearby facilities, perpetrators were routed to federal courts, where the minimum prison sentence for illegal gun possession was five years. The federal prisons were also situated far from Richmond, and friends and family. The initiative was called Project Exile.

In its first year, gun-related homicides in Richmond dropped 40 percent. Senator Tim Kaine, who took office as the city’s mayor in 1998, and was a city councilman when it was implemented, touted the program in his election campaigns and has claimed credit for its success. Project Exile has also found a supporter in Donald Trump, who hailed it in a position paper on Second Amendment rights as a program that protects responsible gun owners while punishing criminals who perpetrate violence with firearms.

Despite this bipartisan support, in an election year where there seemingly hasn’t been common ground on anything, there is one overriding challenge with any evaluation of Project Exile: It is not clear that it actually works to reduce violent gun crime.

The supposed success of Project Exile prompted cities, states, and even the federal government to roll out their own versions of the program. But research shows that Richmond’s descent from the heights of violent crime in the mid-1990s likely had little to do with increased and more punitive sentences. The most comprehensive study to challenge its efficacy was published in 2003, and it claimed that while Richmond appeared to be getting safer in the years following Project Exile’s rollout, the city’s crime numbers would have likely fallen without the program’s sentence enhancement.

Richmond was experiencing an aberrantly high spike in violent crime just as prosecutors set Project Exile into motion in 1996. Researchers think it’s likely that the number of shootings would have fallen from its abnormal upward swing in 1996 without a violence intervention program. Other cities similar with similar populations and crime rates to Richmond, including Norfolk, Virginia, reported similar drops in crime rates without programs that delivered harsher penalties to offenders.

Project Exile was created in 1997 by prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office in Richmond. They argued that illegal gun cases should be brought in federal court, where a determination of guilt would trigger a mandatory five-year prison sentence, with no opportunity for parole. Many offenders convicted under state law served a year or less on their sentence and then were released on probation or parole.

In bringing cases, prosecutors pursued certain violations of federal law, charging felons and domestic abusers who illegally carried guns, as well as drug users or traffickers who possessed guns.

Before the implementation of Project Exile, defendants charged with a gun crime were permitted to post bail. Some law enforcement experts said that the temporary release of potentially dangerous gun carriers dissuaded shooting witnesses from coming forward and slowed investigators’ ability to clear crimes. In addition to lengthening sentences, Project Exile eliminated bail as a possibility, and also diminished plea bargaining.

The prosecutors who designed Project Exile decided to roll out the program with a huge marketing campaign. Barbara Joynes, who helped develop the messaging, tells The Trace that she was asked to craft advertising that would reach offenders most likely to be carrying guns.

“It’s not often you’re asked to target people carrying a gun while committing a crime,” she says. “What’s the demographic for that? You can’t just go to market research and easily identify those people.” With law enforcement’s help, her team focused on outdoor advertising in high crime areas. Billboards, bus ads, radio spots, and television commercials warned: “An illegal gun will get you 5 years in Federal Prison.”

A Project Exile billboard in state capital in 1999. (Photo by Steve Liss/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
A Project Exile billboard in 1999. (Photo by Steve Liss/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Joynes says the ads were convincing. “When cops would catch somebody in a criminal act, they’d pat them down and ask, are you carrying? The person would say, ‘Are you crazy? I don’t want to be exiled.’”

In Project Exile’s first two years, prosecutors indicted 404 people in Richmond on federal gun charges, six times as many as the city’s annual average. (Federal gun charges are frequently reserved for crimes related to gun trafficking.) Of those, 86 percent were convicted, serving, on average, a prison term of 55 months.

Homicides in Richmond fell from 160, their peak in 1994, to 94 in 1998 — a dazzling 41 percent drop. Incidents of violent crime also dipped during this time by over 20 percent.

In 1999, then-mayor Kaine told the New York Times that Project Exile is “driving the crime rate down, and that is starting to make Richmonders believers [in their own community] again.”

Project Exile became a model for other gun violence prevention efforts that centered on harsher criminal punishments. By 1999, the Virginia state legislature had passed statutes to implement a statewide version of Richmond’s program, lengthening the sentences for gun crimes that offenders would serve in state prisons to five years. Seeing the immediate exaltation of Project Exile, other cities requested funding to emulate it. Philadelphia, Camden, Atlanta, Oakland, and Rochester all had their own versions of an Exile-like program. President George W. Bush’s administration rolled out a $2 billion program called Project Safe Neighborhoods to increase federal prosecutions of gun crimes nationwide, which peaked in 2004.

But not everyone was pleased with Project Exile. African-Americans were disproportionately convicted under its auspices, and some black voters say they are still angry about it.

Crucially, Project Exile’s influence over the crime rate was also uncertain. In the 2003 study, University of Chicago researchers concluded that “the reduction in Richmond’s gun homicide rates surrounding the implementation of Project Exile was not unusual and that almost all of the observed decrease probably would have occurred even in the absence of the program.”

Critics also said that imprisoning felons far from their hometowns excessively burdened families, who often had to travel hours to visit.

Oakland, which implemented a version of Project Exile in 1999, saw homicide rates rise after it shifted gun cases to federal courts.

In the decades since Project Exile was introduced, sentencing reform has gained traction among both political parties, as people continue to call into question the purpose — and humaneness — of imprisoning people far from their homes for long periods of time. Many cities abandoned their versions of Project Exile, and federal funding for Project Safe Neighborhoods has been rolled back.

Rochester’s Project Exile is one of the few versions of program still active. After 18 years, results are mixed.

But the punitive spirit of Exile survives through other policies, like gun enhancement — increasing sentences based on the presence of a gun during an offense — and mandatory minimum sentences in state statutes.

Even though some research indicates that swiftness and certainty of punishment are better deterrents to crime than the severity of the punishment, a bipartisan federal proposal for sentencing reform from last October left intact mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes.

As homicides in cities surge, officials in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Baltimore are calling for mandatory minimum sentences for gun convictions.

Kevin Davis, the police commissioner of Baltimore, which closed out its bloodiest year ever in December, with 344 homicides, is pushing for a statewide bill modeled after Project Exile that would impose a one-year minimum sentence for illegal gun carrying.

“If we’re going to win this conflict, there has to be a consequence to someone making a decision to arm himself with an illegal firearm,” he said in an interview with the Baltimore Sun. “Right now, that consequence is nonexistent.”

[Photo: Evan Vucci/Gerald Herbert/AP]