In the mid-1990s, Richmond, Va., 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 deadliest cities. Desperate to curb the violence, the city piloted a controversial program called Project Exile in 1997 intended to more severely punish perpetrators of gun crimes.
Instead of trying cases in state courts, an approach that often led to short prison stays, perpetrators were routed to federal courts, where the minimum prison sentence for illegal gun possession was five years, reports The Trace. The program was called Exile because federal prisons were located far from Richmond. In its first year, gun-related homicides dropped 40 percent. Senator Tim Kaine, who took office as the city’s mayor in 1998, touted the program and claimed credit for its success. Project Exile also found a supporter in Donald Trump, who hailed it in a position paper on Second Amendment rights.
Despite this bipartisan support, it is not clear that Exile actually reduces violent gun crime. In 2003, 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.” Still, as homicides surge in some cities, 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.