In 1998, Bill Johnson traveled from his home in Rochester, New York, to Richmond, Virginia, to see his father, who was dying of congestive heart failure. At his bedside one morning, Johnson read a newspaper article about a local program that imposed stiff penalties for gun crimes. The program was called Project Exile, and it was getting big results: a massive drop in homicides.
Johnson was fascinated. Rochester was a lot like Richmond — similar populations and demographics, with high rates of violent crime. It was the murder capital of New York; its 53 murders the year before gave it the highest rate of any city in the state.
Johnson was Rochester’s mayor, and he was looking for anything that could prevent what he saw as senseless violence in his city. Johnson’s father had been a funeral director, so he’d grown up going to funerals. And now, as mayor, he was doing the same thing. It seemed like every week there was another phone call about another murder, often in the middle of the night. “We’ve got to break the backs of this very, very destructive violent crime wave,” he recalled thinking. “It was really destroying our city.”
The national murder rate spiked in the early 1990s and had remained high in Richmond, Rochester and many other cities. Mayors and police chiefs were looking for anything that could reduce the violence, especially among the young men who were most likely to be its perpetrators and its victims. Young men ages 15 to 34 are still the majority of gun homicide victims nationally, at 56 percent from 2012 to 2014, and their deaths in homicides account for 19 percent of all gun deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Multiple Cause of Death database. Two-thirds of them are black.1
Project Exile sought to prevent gun violence by locking up people who in theory posed the biggest risk of committing it: criminals with guns. That included people who used guns to commit crimes, as well as ex-felons, whom the law bars from having guns at all. Under the program, cases that would normally have been prosecuted in state court went to federal court, where defendants were less likely to receive pretrial bail and were more likely to face mandatory minimum sentences. The result was longer prison terms for gun crime — and, in theory, a powerful disincentive to commit it.
The word “federal” was key to the program’s messaging to the public, delivered via ads on television, billboards and buses. A federal charge of illegal use or possession of a gun — often tacked on to charges for selling drugs or for other related offenses — could mean serving time far from home. You wouldn’t know your fellow inmates. Your parents and children and partners wouldn’t be able to visit easily. State prison was close to home. Federal prison was exile.
The program was seductive to politicians, prosecutors and police chiefs, who could point to Exile as evidence that they were getting tough on crime, a popular mantra in 1980s and ’90s law enforcement. The public, a large majority of whom said they supported tough sentences for felons who committed crimes with guns, could feel reassured that those who did were being punished harshly. Gun control advocates saw it as a way to protect communities from people carrying or using guns illegally. Gun rights advocates liked that it enforced the laws on the books, rather than created new ones — still a refrain of the National Rifle Association.
“This thing was attractive to the right and the NRA, and attractive to much more moderate people, as a way of dealing with serious crime by getting people off the street who previously demonstrated they were a problem,” said John Klofas, a professor of criminal justice at Rochester Institute of Technology who has studied Exile.
And according to what Johnson and many other local leaders were reading at the time, Exile worked: In Richmond, its introduction was followed by a 32 percent drop in murders. The press lauded it. So did the NRA and, more quietly, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Major national political figures said it was a success story worth copying.
Johnson returned to Rochester and gathered all the relevant officials — including police and state and federal prosecutors — to make his pitch. Some had already heard about Exile and were eager to try it themselves.
633 sentences in Rochester
3,411 years in federal prison under Project Exile
Cities and states around the country followed Richmond and Rochester’s lead, usually giving their programs different names. Some injected local flavor: Palmetto Exile, Texas Exile. Others used gun puns: Disarm, Backfire, Ceasefire (which, confusingly, is also the name of a different crime-prevention program). George W. Bush made Exile a centerpiece of his crime-fighting platform in the 2000 presidential campaign, and after he was elected, he made good on his promise with Project Safe Neighborhoods. The $2 billion program included funding to U.S. attorneys across the country to create partnerships with local law-enforcement agencies to step up prosecution of gun crimes. Federal prosecutions for weapons charges peaked at 10,167 in 2004, more than double their number five years earlier.
But soon after Exile went national, its record was called into question. Gun murder numbers rose every year but one through 2006. Two major research papers on the program’s effects in Richmond came to opposite conclusions, with one finding that it didn’t work at all and another that it may have sped the decline in gun murders. The city moved away from Exile after that.2 Critics say that for a program without clear success, Exile is too harsh. They say that tougher penalties alone do not generally deter people from committing crime and that federalizing cases removes prosecutorial accountability. And in many cities, defense attorneys say black defendants and families have borne a disproportionately large share of Exile’s burden.
The national murder rate is much lower today than when Johnson was scrambling for solutions in the late 1990s, but many cities, including Rochester, saw their murder rates rise last year, sending police chiefs and mayors hunting for answers and bringing renewed attention to this once-promising proposal to reduce gun crime. At a news conference in December, Richmond’s police chief raised the possibility of reintroducing the program. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, calls Exile “tremendous” in his platform and backs expanding it. It’s the only program aimed at reducing gun violence that an NRA spokesman told me the organization supports.
Rochester is the city in the best position to tell us whether Exile does what its proponents say it should: reduce gun violence. It has the longest-running program in the country, which continues today. Yet in Rochester, like everywhere else, no one knows whether Exile works. In the program’s 18 years, judges have handed out 633 sentences for a total of 3,411 years in federal prison. But the city had 24 gun murders last year — giving it a rate more than four times New York City’s. And community relations with police, as in many cities, are strained. The enthusiasm for Exile appears to be based more in rhetoric than in evidence, which leaves some people asking whether it’s worth the human costs.
In 2003, five years into Rochester’s Exile program and two years after Project Safe Neighborhoods started spreading similar programs to other cities, Juma Sampson was convicted on drugs and gun charges. He was 25 years old and facing a sentence of just as many years.
Sampson grew up in high-crime southwest Rochester. As a teenager, he was arrested and charged with selling drugs; Sampson told me that he had 13 bags of crack cocaine worth $10 each and was dealing to afford clothes for his senior year of high school. He was sentenced as an adult to one to three years in prison. Sampson said he later got a GED but had trouble finding steady work because of his criminal record.
Sampson said the only job he could find was a part-time position at a local corner store and that he sold drugs to make more money. In 2000, he was arrested for selling more than 50 grams of crack cocaine to an undercover cop. Police found a gun at his girlfriend’s home, which made Sampson’s case a candidate for Exile. (Sampson said the gun wasn’t his and was locked in a room for which he didn’t have the key.)
At the time of Sampson’s arrest, murders were rising again in Rochester after a major decline in 1999, the first full year of the city’s Exile program. Sampson had been caught selling drugs more than once, and prosecutors said he had access to a gun. He was just the sort of defendant they wanted to imprison under the program: Even though Sampson’s record wasn’t violent, most murderers used a gun, and often it was one that they weren’t supposed to have.
Sampson, who maintained his innocence on the gun charge, elected to go to trial. Because it was a federal case, jurors were drawn from the state’s Western District, including many areas with a whiter population than Rochester’s. Sampson, who is black, was convicted. His drug distribution got him a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. The gun added five. It was the longest sentence under Rochester’s Exile program at the time and is still one of the four longest in its history.3
“You can kill somebody here and get less time than my baby got,” said Sampson’s mother, Denise Curry. “And that is the god-in-heaven truth. This boy got 25 years for what?”
Sampson, who is now in the medium-security federal prison in Minersville, Pennsylvania, a four-hour drive south from his Rochester home, said he didn’t know about Exile and its harsher penalties before his sentencing. He doubts that it would have deterred him, or would deter others, from selling drugs. He said he did it to help feed his little sister. “People do things for quick money because it’s a need,” he said.
Exile has cut Sampson off from his parents and his fiancée, as well as his son, who Sampson said was 9 months old when he was locked up and just finished 11th grade, and his son’s mother. Sampson hasn’t seen Juma Jr. or his own mother in more than two years. Her diabetes and a cancer surgery have made it harder for her to visit him. “It’s affected much more than just the person,” Sampson said. “It’s much bigger than the stats.”
Thousands of people have been imprisoned under Exile nationally, yet the evidence on whether it really reduces gun violence and saves lives remains scant. Those two studies on Richmond’s program that came to opposite conclusions are the best we have.
Richmond had 139 murders in 1997, or 67 per 100,000 residents, 10 times the national rate. In 1998, Exile’s first full year in place, murders fell 32 percent, to 94. This was frequently cited as evidence of Exile’s success, but lots of broader trends coincided with the drop. The national murder rate fell by at least 5 percent each year from 1994 to 1999. Criminologists still aren’t sure why. Among possible explanations: the expansion of police forces, growth in incarceration rates, a generation not exposed to lead paint, and, controversially, abortion. Police departments adopted many other initiatives, operations, task forces and projects alongside Exile. “A lot of cities tried different things, and crime was declining everywhere,” said University of California, Berkeley, economist Steven Raphael, who conducted one of the Richmond studies. “How do you assess them?”
Raphael and his co-author, University of Chicago economist Jens Ludwig, say Exile probably didn’t reduce homicides at all. Their 2003 study found that Richmond likely would have experienced roughly the same reduction in homicides it did without Exile. They found that cities where homicides increased a great deal in the 1980s and early 1990s, like Richmond, also saw bigger decreases than other cities in the late 1990s — whether or not they had Exile. Basically, homicides regressed to the mean.
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, is a co-author of the other study, published in 2005, which found more evidence that Exile worked. When controlling for factors such as incarceration rates and poverty, he and his research partners found that Richmond’s gun homicide rate fell by 22 percent annually from 1999 to 2001, compared with a rate of 10 percent for comparable cities.
Rosenfeld also studied Ceasefire, a program that combined Exile’s threat of federal prosecution with crackdowns on gun traffickers and engagement with violent gangs to reduce homicide. He didn’t have enough data to arrive at firm conclusions about its effectiveness. A 2012 study found Ceasefire strategies reduced violence in several cities, and it remains in use in a couple of California cities, although its backers have struggled to secure funding. “Criminologists tend to divide between Ceasefire devotees — they’re the majority — and Exile devotees,” Rosenfeld said. “My sense is that the approaches share strong common elements.”
A 2009 study provided more support for Exile. It examined cities with at least 100,000 people, including 26 that were part of Project Safe Neighborhoods and had high levels of federal gun prosecution and 38 cities that weren’t and didn’t. The first group experienced a 13 percent decrease in violent crimes (they didn’t look specifically at gun crimes), compared with an 8 percent increase in the second group of cities. The positive Exile effect persisted after controlling for other factors.
So who’s right? It might not be possible to know with the data we have. Also, some researchers think it’s simply not possible to control for all the other factors, policing and otherwise, that can affect reported crime numbers. Weather, trauma medicine and economics can all affect gun death numbers.
“None of this stuff is as neat as even the peer-reviewed publications put it,” said Klofas, the Rochester Institute of Technology criminologist. He said Rochester police have tried hundreds of other things while Exile has been in place: “It’s very hard to sort these things out.”
The prosecutor in Sampson’s case, Bret Puscheck, now works for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Atlanta. He said that he remembered the case well and that he had no regrets. “If a drug dealer is armed with a gun, there’s an extreme potential for violence,” he said.
That notion is central to the thinking behind Exile: Locking up the people in a community with an extreme potential for violence should reduce violence in that community. And like Exile itself, the notion makes sense to police and prosecutors but isn’t backed by much hard data.
Puscheck said he based his reasoning on his more than 28 years of experience, including frequent conversations with police officers and drug dealers, which left him believing that “as a drug dealer, your chances of being involved in some sort of illicit shooting is probably double, triple or even quadruple that of someone not involved in the drug trade” carrying a gun.
Criminologists aren’t sure about those numbers. They aren’t even sure how to measure them without reliable data on how many people carry guns and how many people who carry guns also deal drugs. “Percentages and measured risk are hard to come up with, if for no other reasons than there are a lot of guns around,” Klofas said.
In the absence of evidence, the reasoning behind Exile can start to look like bias to some critics. They say that calls to exile “bad guys” or “predators” are racist dog whistles and that in many cities, most Exile defendants have been African-American.
139 murders in Richmond in 1997
94 murders in Richmond in 1998, Exile’s first full year in the city
Robert Wagner, a federal public defender in Richmond, described the effect of Exile as “essentially locking up a large segment of the African-American community in Richmond under draconian sentencing principles for unreasonably long periods of time.” It was not, he said, “an answer to the problem.”
Wagner and other defense attorneys haven’t been able to prove racism in decisions on whom to prosecute under Exile: They’ve shown how many federal defendants are black, but comparable data on defendants facing similar gun cases in state courts isn’t kept by the government and is difficult to compile. Wagner enlisted the help of high-school students to catalog federal cases in the Richmond area from 2005 to 2007. They found that 87 percent of defendants in certain types of federal gun cases4 — many of them Exile cases — were African-American. About half of Richmond’s residents are black. (The federal prosecutor’s office that covers Richmond declined to comment.)
In Rochester, demographic details aren’t available for all Exile defendants, but 15 of the first 19 people the city’s federal public defender’s office represented in Exile cases were black. (Rochester’s population is 42 percent black.) Mark Hosken, a federal public defender in Rochester, said Exile didn’t target only people who seemed likely to commit gun violence. “It seemed in the beginning that anything that fit into the broad criteria was brought into federal court,” he said. “There were many cases that were simple traffic stops with a gun in a car.”
William Hochul Jr., the U.S. attorney for New York’s Western District, said his office focuses on prosecuting violent crime and never considers the race of potential defendants. “We have never targeted anyone on the basis of race,” he said. “We follow the facts and follow the law.”
Rochester officials who are involved with Exile say most people prosecuted are black because the pool of potential Exile defendants is mostly black. “You can only review what you start with,” said Joe Morabito, a commander with the city’s police department who oversees the unit that manages Exile cases.
“Officers wish it wasn’t” the case that most people they arrest on gun charges are black men, Morabito said. “It paints us wrong. It makes it look like we only target black guys.”
Johnson said he’d sometimes be asked how he, as a black mayor, could back a program that imprisoned mostly young black men. He would respond, “I want you to understand who their victims are: almost totally other young black men.”
Since 1998, 58 percent of gun murder victims and 73 percent of perpetrators in Rochester have been young black males.5 Recently, young black men have represented an even greater share of the city’s victims of gun murders: 69 percent from 2011 to 2014. Yet young black men make up less than 6 percent of Rochester’s population.
Nationally during the Exile era, young black men have made up about 2 percent of the population but 38 percent of gun murder victims, according to the FBI, and 44 percent of known perpetrators. Those percentages haven’t changed much since the start of Exile, and young black men remain one of the largest groups of gun murder victims today.
That’s one reason that most cities that adopted Exile after its first burst of national fame have abandoned it. In other cases, prosecutors’ priorities changed, or the delicate alliances between criminal justice agencies fractured. Rochester, pushed by a strong advisory board and officials who believe in Exile’s value, has continued to use it — with little fanfare, other than articles in the local paper about annual luncheons celebrating the program.
In years when murders have fallen, Rochester leaders have touted Exile’s success. When murders have risen, they’ve asked how they can strengthen the program. Gun murders dropped 14 percent in the first year of Exile in the city and 47 percent in the second year, but since then, they have risen as often as they’ve fallen, with no clear trend.
“Pretty much everyone will sing the praises of Exile, but they’re not singing it based on any evaluation,” Klofas said.
Morabito said he thinks the city has gotten safer but it’s impossible to say how much credit Exile should get. “It’s so hard to measure what you prevented,” he said.
That’s not good enough for Sampson and others who think they — and their families — have suffered too much because of Exile. Sampson has studied in prison and founded a publishing company. He plans to return to Rochester after his sentence is up to advise young people on how to avoid prison. But he also resents being separated from his family for so many years. “It’s a strain on everybody,” he said.
The main long-term upside of Exile for the city, it turns out, may be the lines of communication that it has opened among officials. Rochester’s advisory board includes representatives from many parts of the community, including leaders of churches, media organizations and nonprofit groups. Their monthly meeting has become a place to discuss problems in the city and to coordinate solutions that go far beyond federal prosecution of gun crimes. Other cities took Project Exile and renamed it without changing it; Rochester has kept the name but greatly expanded what fits under its umbrella.
Johnson doesn’t know if Exile works; today, he said, he’d tell other mayors to evaluate it, along with Ceasefire. He knows that Rochester’s murder numbers fell when he was mayor. “Whether it was Ceasefire, whether it was [the Repeat Offender Program], whether it was this, whether it was that, whether it was Exile — something was happening that we could see the rates decline in Rochester,” he said. “If you talk to anybody from that period, they will say the same thing: We tried everything, and eventually we brought that number down. My job was to bring homicides down, and whatever way we did it, we did it.”
This article is part of our project exploring the more than 33,000 annual gun deaths in America and what it would take to bring that number down. Our podcast What’s The Point is highlighting the project all week.