In a March 15 session with law enforcement officials in Richmond, Virginia, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions outlined the administration’s plans to combat what he described as the beginning of an increase in the nation’s rate of violent crime.
Breaking sharply from the Obama administration’s stand, Sessions said he plans to bring back aggressive federal prosecution of drug dealers and felons possessing handguns.
A major part of Sessions’ presentation highlighted Project Exile, a federal program dating back to the 1990s, under which federal prosecutors took over from local officials gun possession charges against felons. Convictions on federal gun charges brought mandatory five-year prison terms, usually more than available for violations of state gun laws. The attorney-general vowed to promote the program nationwide, calling it a “very discreet effective policy against violent crime.”
The setting for the meeting was especially appropriate: Project Exile was first launched in Richmond in 1997, with the assistance of current FBI Director James Comey, who was then an assistant U.S. attorney there. Tim Kaine, now a senator and the 2016 Democratic vice-presidential candidate, also strongly supported Project Exile when he was the Richmond mayor.
Donald Trump has been another outspoken supporter of Project Exile, calling it a “tremendous” program in 2015 and making it a key part of his platform position on guns. In contrast, former Obama attorney-general Eric Holder disparaged Project Exile as a “cookie cutter” program.
Richmond was then experiencing an upsurge in gang violence and had one of the nation’s highest per-capita murder rates. During the first full year Project Exile in effect, homicides in Richmond fell by one-third, and armed robberies declined almost as much.
The following year, the city’s homicides dropped by another 21 percent. Noting many communities have dropped Project Exile – including Richmond, though local police have talked about reviving it to fight rising gun violence – Sessions predicted an end to the downtrend.
Opponents of the program, including groups against mandatory minimum sentences, dispute its effectiveness, claiming violence rates dropped just as much in some cities without the program, and arguing the program splits up families (the “exile” in the program’s name refers to the likelihood those convicted on federal gun charges can be incarcerated in a distant federal prison, rather than a closer-by state facility). Bond is also generally harder to raise on federal charges, and the federal prison system does not have parole.
Another part of Sessions’ remarks at the Richmond meeting dealt with policy toward laws against marijuana. The attorney general scoffed at arguments marijuana use ought to be legalized and might even help to combat the growing use of heroin and other opioids. Calling marijuana only “slightly less awful” than heroin, he proposed reviving drug abstinence campaigns like those popular decades ago. He also voiced the view that the benefits of medical marijuana had been exaggerated. President Trump, on the other hand, has made very supportive statements about medical marijuana.
Even so, Sessions did not signal a wave of federal enforcement against marijuana dispensers or producers in states which have legalized those uses. He stated at a question-and-answer session after his talk that federal enforcers would not “pick up the work” traditionally done by local police and sheriffs.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of the Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016) and College for Convicts(McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News and Prison Legal News. This article is partially adapted from the Federal Prison Handbook. He can be found online at PrisonerResource.com .