ANNAPOLIS – Project Exile has led Gov.-elect Robert Ehrlich’s crime agenda for four years, but his move from Congress to the State House isn’t likely to make the program’s passage in Maryland any easier.
Opponents cite the legislation’s mandatory minimum sentencing as the primary reason why they don’t support bringing Project Exile to Maryland.
Although the Senate has shown overwhelming support of Exile legislation, the next senator likely to take Walter Baker’s, D-Cecil, place as the Senate Judicial Proceedings chairman, who will give the bill its first hearing, is not as friendly to the idea.
Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, will likely replace Baker, who lost in the general election. Frosh has repeatedly voted against Exile.
The federal program started in Richmond in 1997 and is designed to prosecute illegal firearm offenses in federal court and impose mandatory sentences. Virginia adopted the plan and has had success curbing gun crimes.
As a U.S. congressman representing Maryland, Ehrlich touted the program, particularly as an antidote to Baltimore’s murder rate. He proposed to the U.S. attorney for Maryland in 1999 that the state adopt Project Exile.
Ehrlich compared the 576 criminals in Richmond that have been charged with gun crimes through Project Exile in the past three years to the 275 that have been charged in Baltimore by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the past five.
“The message has not been lost on criminals: In Richmond, they know they will be prosecuted; in Baltimore, they know they might be prosecuted,” Ehrlich said in a Feb. 8, 2000, press release.
Sen. Philip Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, said the bill received great bipartisan support in the Senate. However, even after bringing in Richmond prosecutors and the chief of police to testify on the program’s success, the House killed the bill.
Beginning in 2000, the House Judiciary Committee killed the bill three years in a row, after a 2000 Senate vote of 42 to 4 in support and a 2001 Senate vote of 44 to 3 in support. Last session, the bill never made it to the Senate.
“Even before the governor-elect talked about it, we had bipartisan support,” Jimeno said. “It’s a concept that makes sense. If you commit a crime with a gun you go to jail.”
The bill doesn’t make sense to House Judiciary Chairman Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s. “From what I can see we already have Project Exile and we’ve had it for a while,” he said, adding he sees only one difference with Maryland state law: Exile is a federal program.
One big Project Exile booster in the State House has been Delegate Joan Cadden, D-Anne Arundel. She cites the success Virginia and U.S. cities have had with the program. The program has contributed to the 40 percent reduction of gun violence in Richmond, according to the Virginia Exile Web site. “It’s so successful in Virginia and it really does deter criminals from carrying guns because they know they’re not going around the corner where their families can visit – they’re going away to federal prison,” she said. Cadden, who has pre-filed an Exile bill for the upcoming session, said the reason the bill has had so much trouble getting past the House is because the judges and lawyers on the Judiciary Committee don’t like the mandatory sentencing.
That’s why Frosh has joined a very small minority in the Senate in opposition.
“In general I think it’s better to give judges discretion than prosecutors,” Frosh said.
Mandatory sentencing will prevent criminals from making a plea deal with prosecutors for lesser charges, said Lt. Gov.-elect Michael Steele.
“We’re looking to bring Exile in to set a new standard,” Steele said. “Our goal is to make the use of a firearm untenable and mandatory sentencing will be a big part of that.”
Both the National Rifle Association and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence favor Project Exile.
“We support it but we don’t believe it’s the end all and be all,” said Amy Stilwell, the spokeswoman for the Brady Campaign. “It shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for passing and making strong gun laws that are preventative in nature.”
After analyzing six different jurisdictions that were provided grant funds to aid in prosecution of Project Exile offenses, the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services issued an interim evaluation in August. The report said 310 cases were prosecuted across the sites from January 2000 to May 2001, the latest available statistics.
The evaluation found that 81 percent of cases included confiscation of at least one firearm, and 56 percent of all Circuit Court cases brought resulted in a Virginia Exile conviction. It also found that 95 percent of those convictions resulted in the mandatory minimum sentence of five years.
However, the evaluation also found some faults, including the fact that 35 percent of all defendants were granted bail despite the provision that bail not be granted to Exile offenders.