WASHINGTON – A group of Maryland legislators and law enforcement officials are headed for Virginia Friday for a closer look at an aggressive anti-gun program that they hope to bring to Maryland.
The Richmond program, known as Project Exile, requires that all convicted felons who are caught with a firearm be prosecuted under federal law and sentenced to a minimum of five years in an out-of-state federal prison if convicted.
“We’re going to try our best and sell it here in Maryland,” said state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, one of three Maryland legislators who plans to introduce legislation in January modeled on the Richmond program.
But U.S. Attorney for Maryland Lynne A. Battaglia said no new Maryland laws are needed because the state already has a similar aggressive enforcement program in place.
“We already have Exile here: It’s called Disarm,” Battaglia said. “There’s no state law we need to pass to enforce it.”
Under Disarm, law enforcement officials review the record of anyone arrested with a handgun in Baltimore. If the person has any previous felony convictions, state and federal prosecutors decide where to prosecute the case, based on which court would likely result in more jail time.
Officials outside Baltimore can ask the U.S. Attorney’s Office to review their gun-crime cases. If the suspect has two or more previous felony convictions, federal prosecutors will consider taking the case.
But in Richmond, prosecutors are not given a choice. Anyone subject to Exile guidelines is automatically charged with the federal offense, and judges are required to give a minimum sentence of five years on conviction.
The imposition of mandatory sentences is “highly suspect” to the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The principle problem with Exile is the mandatory sentences,” said Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU. “We take out of the hands of judges the right to make sure the punishment is commensurate with the crime. Judges should be able to … look at all the extenuating circumstances.”
Willis also thinks officials are giving Project Exile too much credit for lowering crime rates.
“There really are too many variables to make that connection,” he said. “Overall crime rates are down all over the country.”
But Jimeno is convinced by the Richmond numbers. He said taking the decision-making power away from local judges and prosecutors has been key to the success of the Virginia program.
“That’s the difference: tightening down so there is no discretion,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium, agrees that Maryland laws are not enforced uniformly. He organized Friday’s trip, so Maryland lawmakers could find out more about the Richmond program.
In addition to Jimeno’s bill, a companion measure is expected to be introduced in the House of Delegates by Delegates Joan Cadden, D-Anne Arundel, and George Owings, D-Calvert. It was not clear Thursday which state lawmakers were accompanying Ehrlich to Richmond.
Battaglia maintains that Maryland’s current program has been successful. Her office said 250 cases have been federally prosecuted through Disarm since the program started in Baltimore in 1994, and the average sentence for those convicted has been eight years.
But Jimeno said Maryland can do more.
“The real difference [between Disarm and Exile] is the success that Project Exile has gotten,” Jimeno said. “Everybody knows in Richmond that if you’re carrying an illegal gun, you’re going to go to federal prison. That’s not happening here.”