On a cool, breezy and overcast morning this past December, U.S. Attorney Michael Hurst called a press conference on the steps of the U.S. District Court in downtown Jackson, Ms.
President Donald Trump, who had appointed Hurst the previous June in a second wave of U.S. attorney nominees, described him as sharing “the president’s vision for ‘Making America Safe Again.'”
A sign with a large red button and “Project EJECT” written across the center leaned on a tripod easel.
Hurst had invited media, Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, Hinds County Sheriff Victor Mason, FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Christopher Freeze, and clergy to stand by him as he unveiled Project EJECT (Empower Jackson Expel Crime Together).
“Today is a new day,” Hurst began, adding, “(T)he message to violent criminals in Jackson is simple: you break the law, you terrorize our neighborhoods, and you will be ejected from our community.”
Hurst has charged 35 people since he first announced the anti-crime initiative in late 2017. In the next two months, 13 people are going to trial before a federal jury of their peers to decide whether they will be among the first ejected from Jackson under the strategy that Hurst, Freeze and Sessions embrace, with (qualified) support from the City of Jackson.
But the program has already prompted skepticism from community residents, criminologists and reformers from all sides of the political spectrum.
John Koufos, the national director of re-entry initiatives for the Koch family-funded Right on Crime, who was in Jackson recently to urge conservatives to support prison reform and re-entry, slammed the idea of ejecting offenders to another state.
“Many times … you’ve got people locked up all over the country. How are you supposed to re-integrate these folks back into the community when they’re in Kansas?” said Koufos, a former felon in New Jersey, in a speech at Jackson’s Old Capitol Inn.
Phillip Goff, co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said there were risks involved in removing people from their social supports.
“The people making decisions about removing folks, shunning folks, and excommunicating them from their homes are often not the same people who are in community with those committing crimes,” said Goff in a phone interview.
“That’s a fundamental flaw with the way that we handle the criminal-legal system right now.”
The system tends to be comprised of the poorest, most vulnerable, poorly educated, least advantaged and least connected to opportunities, and those prosecuting them do not tend to be of that demographic, he added.
Sending Firearms Offenders into ‘Exile”
Every single case Hurst is pursuing under Project EJECT involves illegal use or possession of firearms in some way under an initiative U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has resuscitated from the years before Barack Obama became president.
Many begin as cases that would normally put them under state jurisdiction, even for acts committed with guns. But Hurst takes the cases when they can be shown to involve interstate commerce.
In example, three individuals charged with armed robbery used a stolen Grand Am car for their getaway. But the fact that the Grand Am had been transported, shipped and received through interstate commerce made them candidates for Project EJECT.
Similarly, two individuals who allegedly held up a store in October 2017 came under Hurst’s scrutiny because their offense involved a plan to steal a getaway car manufactured outside the state.
“Carjacking is a federal crime because the car was manufactured in interstate commerce,” Hurst said in his office in February.
Hurst’s goal to “eject” violent criminals into federal court and then prisons outside the state is much like Project Exile in Richmond, Va., in the 1990s, which sent felons into “exile” for firearm violations.
The FBI’s Freeze, who joined Hurst at his December press conference, in fact, worked for the agency in Richmond at the time, back when James Comey was the U.S. attorney leading the program there. Freeze started pushing a version of Exile in Mississippi soon after he arrived in late 2016.
“Project Exile was founded and based on the concept that if you’re a convicted felon, caught in commission of a crime, with a weapon, there’s a five-year automatic sentence to federal prison,” Freeze told WDAM in Hattiesburg in April 2017.
Under the program, special agents from both federal and state agencies join local law enforcement to identify crimes Hurst can prosecute. A task force determines if there is enough evidence to prosecute suspects in the federal system.
Authorities will lock suspects up immediately in detention without bond, and law enforcement will not cut a deal so the suspect could be out in a few months. Once convicted, the theory goes, the felon would spend time without parole in the federal system “far, far away from Mississippi so that they cannot continue their criminal activity behind bars,” Hurst said in December.
The idea is that the criminals would be away from their criminal networks and, thus, be likely to commit less crime.
Hurst acknowledged that they would also be removed from their families and existing support networks, while in prisons known for rough gang activity.
Nevertheless, Project EJECT won early praise from local police. Then-Jackson Police Chief Lee Vance, said at Hurst’s press conference that his “greatest wish” for the strategy is that a young man in Jackson rethinks a life of crime and will rethink his actions after watching others go to federal prison “for a long time, perhaps thousands of miles away from here.”
But some local critics have their doubts. One called it a “sinister law-and-order initiative aimed at criminalizing, victimizing and ethnically cleansing poor black people from Jackson while using violence and crime reduction as a way to cover its nefarious intent.”
The critics say they are also angered by the silence from Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba, who has offered few public statements on Project EJECT.
Meanwhile, citizens are forcing a public conversation about Project EJECT.
“(Since) police in the City have implemented the Project EJECT program…there have been at least seven officer-involved shootings,” Calandra Davis said at a Jackson City Council meeting on Feb. 27.
“And to realize that this program and these shootings affect African-Americans disproportionately should raise concern for all of us….”
Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba has since put some distance between the program and city government.
“Project EJECT is (not) and has never been an initiative of the City,” Lumumba said at the council meeting. “… This administration has never said it is in favor of Project EJECT.”
But he added: “I will say that some of the comments that were made during the (Hurst) press conference where it talked about people not getting bonds and everything else was inappropriate.”
Hurst insisted in an interview with the Jackson Free Press that his initial statement had been “misconstrued.”
“We are only a part of the judicial process, and our part will be to move for detention,” he said.
He pushed back on the suggestion that his promises meant violating people’s rights to bond; prosecutors will not suggest bond, he said.
“We’re moving for detention, and the judge makes a decision based upon the facts.”
He argued that the program was really part of the federal government’s “reboot” of Project Safe Neighborhoods, a pre-Obama-era program that Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he was re-invigorating, according to an October, 2017 statement, to “reduce the rising tide of violent crime in America.” He announced that he was allocating 40 new prosecutors to approximately 20 United States Attorney’s Offices to focus on violent crime reduction.
But former U.S. Attorney Gregory K. Davis said Project EJECT is not precisely the same as the Jackson Violent Crime Initiative launched by his office in 2015.
Davis said in an interview that his program did not specifically threaten to send convicted criminals far away from Mississippi.
“Our issue was more so that violent people need to be prosecuted, the law needs to be enforced, and once they’re sentenced, they will be sent to a prison,” he said. “More than likely, that would be at a different location other than a local area.”
Some of those convicted were imprisoned in state. Others went to Arkansas, West Virginia, Florida or Georgia, but Davis made clear he did not set out to have people who commit violent crimes sent far away like Hurst; that is where they landed.
Ceasefire Fires Back
What rankles many observers is Hurst’s insistence that the program is a natural continuation of violence intervention programs like Richmond’s Project Exile or Operation Ceasefire in Boston.
“On the prosecution side, we’re not reinventing the wheel,” he explained. “We’re taking a lot of what has been done in other cities.”
But David Kennedy, the violence expert who helped design Operation Ceasefire—which launched as the Boston Gun Project in 1996—did not mince words when asked about Project EJECT and its earlier models in Richmond, Va., Rochester, N.Y., and other cities in the U.S.
Kennedy calls Sessions’ crime strategies “evidence-free”, despite violence statistics its proponents cite to prove otherwise. Not to mention, he said, strategies like EJECT and Exile have little to do with his Ceasefire approach, which is often referred to as the “Kennedy model” of violence deterrence.
“One of the innumerable mistakes is to say that Project Safe Neighborhood was built on Kennedy’s work,” Kennedy said in his office at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York where he is a professor.
“… That’s not right. It was in a small way based on my stuff. … We produced the first research that really showed there was such a thing as illicit markets in firearms.”
But the approach that became Project Exile under U.S. Attorney James Comey in Richmond ignored vital aspects of his team’s work to decrease group violence, Kennedy said, calling his work “a partnership approach focused on groups.”
“The other (approach) was Exile, which actually has its roots in opposition to my work,” Kennedy added.
Unlike Operation Ceasefire, Project Safe Neighborhoods declined to focus on how violent people get firearms, whether legally or illegally. The Exile approach, which was also endorsed by the National Rifle Association, puts the prosecutorial onus on the street-level shooters with little attention to where the supply of weapons came from or how to stop it. That led to charges of racial disparities, and contributed to increased distrust between police and communities of color, Kennedy said.
The Operation Ceasefire approach, which Kennedy’s team now brings to cities through the National Network for Safe Communities, is about prior engagement with those believed likely to commit gun violence, offering them help and services, and also threatening them with arrest on the state or federal levels if they or their associates commit violence. It is also about identifying illicit markets for weapons. And those who traffick the weapons aren’t usually the young black people who get caught up in federal Exile-type enforcement.
Initially, the NRA liked his approach, Kennedy said, but redirected its support away from a program that identified illicit markets to supporting the street-level federal arrests the Bush administration adopted.
Those arrests sent a disparate number of people of color to a gang-packed prison thousands of miles away for additional years, while not bothering to also focus on how they got the guns in the first place. Kennedy also said the federal prosecutions were brought unevenly, deepening distrust in communities toward law enforcement.
In his office, Hurst backed away from Ceasefire when asked if his alliance was also including the services and prevention side of the strategy, as Kennedy’s approach requires.
“It’s really not something, that aspect of Ceasefire, we have not really considered. (EJECT is) really going to be more in line with Exile. It’s almost Exile Plus in the sense of Exile was very strong. But I don’t know how much of the prevention and, yeah, re-entry they did, but it’s hard to argue with their numbers during the time.”
Kennedy does argue with the numbers of Richmond’s Exile and all its clones. Violent gun crime did fall dramatically in Richmond then, but it did not in other cities that emulated the strategy, raising his suspicion that more was going on, he said.
“The reason we know Exile doesn’t work is … because there’s a small body of really good formal evaluations … that say it doesn’t work,” Kennedy said. “I’m not aware of any place where (Exile) was associated with violent crime reduction.”
“What else was going in Richmond at the time? Was there something else that accounted for the reduction?” he added.
Jackson ostensibly tried an Operation Ceasefire approach at one time called “MACE” supposedly modeled on Baton Rouge’s BRAVE strategy, but a Jackson Free Press investigation found that local law enforcement just left out the services and outreach components and used the resources for massive enforcement, which violates the principles of Ceasefire.
Juan Cloy, a former Jackson police officer who was assigned to the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force, is the Mississippi project director of Fight Crime, a nonprofit to help prevent youth crime.
In a perfect world, Cloy said, no one would need to go to prison. He wants to approach the justice system with the kind of equilibrium David Kennedy talks about—balancing the stick of arrest with compassion and programs that preempt people from entering the system, especially kids.
“So what we’re trying to do is keep young people from even being introduced into the federal system or into the local or state system…,” Cloy said.
“That way we don’t have to worry about any acronyms at all, right?”
Greg Davis agrees. While in office, the former U.S. attorney had an initiative called LEAD: Mississippi’s Legal Enrichment and Decision Making Program. Through it, he spoke to students around the state about staying on the right path—but still focusing on what would happen if they did not.
“One of my primary goals as a prosecutor is to prevent crimes from happening in the first place,” Davis told a group of students at N.R. Burger Middle School in Hattiesburg in October 2014.
“Educating students about the social and legal consequences of their decisions is essential to reducing negative behavior and making our communities safe,” he added.
Does “Tough Love” Work?
When Hurst announced Project EJECT, he grinned as he drew connections between his initiative and basketball—particularly what happens when you commit a foul against another player.
“Goodness knows, I had my fair share of fouls,” Hurst said in December. “But, if you intentionally, flagrantly violate the rules, you will be ejected. That’s the consequence. What we’re announcing today with Project EJECT are consequences, but also hope.”
Hurst added that even if you get ejected from a basketball game, you don’t have to leave the sport for life. Rather, you can come back the next game and abide by the rules. He sees the same thing happening for people sentenced far from home under Project EJECT.
“Come back after you serve your sentence, be rehabilitated, abide by our rules, and we will welcome you back with open arms in our community,” Hurst said.
Hurst maintains that the threat of being shipped away can have a “deterrent effect.”
“I know that’s tough love, but it’s combined with the fact that if you want to come back and follow along, we really will help you re-enter society. It can’t just be tough love; it’s got to be that (promise of help).”
The non-law enforcement piece of Project EJECT involves the faith-based community, nonprofits, neighborhood associations and businesses, Hurst said.
In fact, local stakeholders represent the “T” in EJECT—together. Hurst wants business owners to give people a second chance once they have served their time and returned.
He does talk about getting to the root cause of crime through prevention, education, rehabilitation, communication and collaboration, but it is not built into Project EJECT with federal resources and strategies behind it. Hurst made his limitations clear, and leaned on the community behind him instead to achieve better communities.
“We don’t have all the answers, guys,” Hurst said in December. “Project EJECT is fluid, flexible for a reason so we can adapt to the changes and circumstances, and frankly rely upon the expertise of these men and women standing behind me.”
However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been less clear—quiet even—on re-entry, especially when compared to his predecessors. In his October 2017 Safe Neighborhoods memo, Sessions promised a “comprehensive approach” to public safety, including prevention, enforcement and re-entry efforts.
But he mentions re-entry only twice, and suggested supporting locally based groups’ re-entry efforts, as Hurst later echoed.
That is, the feds bring the big stick, and locals fund the prevention carrot.
Former attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch had zeroed in on re-entry efforts as well. Lynch, in particular, had a National Re-entry Week that Davis implemented in Jackson.
Davis stressed the importance of re-entry efforts for both the offender and the citizens in community.
“Re-entry is important because what happens is this,” he said before pausing and releasing a long sigh. “Once someone has paid their debt to society, they need to have an opportunity to re-enter society and be a productive member.
“If they re-enter society and they’re not prepared, unable to get a job, unable to have a driver’s license, unable to get health care needs, unable to get whatever services that they should have to allow them to be productive, then they run the risk of re-offending.”
“If somebody re-offends, they have another victim …” Davis said. “And that’s one way you reduce crime, by not having people who get out re-offend.”
Phillip Goff of the Center for Policing Equity does not consider programs like EJECT, which hat remove people from their support networks, to be forward-looking. In fact, he argued, they make re-integration more problematic.
“What are the chances of when that person gets out, their lives can be transformed?” Goff said.
“Who among us … can be removed from social networks and become better for it? Any policy that removes someone from their social support is not a policy that is aimed at making them more likely to succeed when they re-enter….”
This is a condensed and edited version of a story published earlier in the Jackson Free Press. The complete story is available here. Donna Ladd, founder and editor of the Free Press, is a 2018 John Jay/Quattrone Justice Reporting Fellow. The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at Penn Law School assisted with research. Readers’ comments are welcome.