Living in Exile

Federal prisons are filling up with people whose only crime is the possession of a gun.

On February 14, Denver mayor Wellington Webb made Tom Strickland his valentine. At a press conference at Civic Center Park, Webb presented the former U.S. attorney turned Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate with a glittering endorsement. In praising his many efforts as Colorado's chief federal prosecutor, the mayor paid special attention to Strickland's role in implementing Project Exile, a program in which previously convicted felons caught with firearms are marked for harsh federal prosecution.

"Tom was sworn in the day after the terrible tragedy at Columbine, and he vowed to target gun violence and make our neighborhoods safer," Webb said. "Under his leadership, Colorado Project Exile nearly tripled gun-crime prosecutions in the state."

The numbers are indeed impressive. In the twelve-month period before Strickland launched the program in September 1999, 72 Colorado residents were charged with violating federal firearms laws. Between September 1999 and January 2002 (when the most recent court cases were made publicly available), 308 individuals were prosecuted on federal firearms charges as part of Project Exile.

 
Hadley Hooper
 
U.S. Senate candidate Tom Strickland is using Project Exile as a stumping point.
U.S. Senate candidate Tom Strickland is using Project Exile as a stumping point.

The figures jumped because Project Exile calls for prosecutors to wield like a scythe Title 18 of the Federal Firearms Statutes, which outlaws the possession of firearms by "prohibited persons." This includes illegal aliens, anyone who has ever been committed to a mental institution, users of illicit drugs, anyone who has ever been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence and, most of all, anyone with a felony on his criminal record, whether it be for assault with a deadly weapon, forging a check or growing marijuana. What that means is that the mere possession of a gun by a member of one of these groups -- whether or not another crime is involved -- is punishable by a federal prison sentence of up to twenty years.

Before Project Exile, Title 18 charges were primarily tacked on to stiffen the sentences of violent criminals; for example, a convicted felon who used a gun to rob a bank would be charged with illegal possession of a firearm in addition to armed bank robbery. That's not the way it works anymore. Project Exile has radically altered the number and nature of federal firearms prosecutions in Colorado, both under Strickland and under his successor, John Suthers, who was appointed by President George W. Bush last July. Exile is an all-out dragnet, designed to snare as many violators of Title 18 as possible, no matter how serious their felony record or how technical their violation. Local and state police officers, even park rangers, have been trained to check anyone in possession of a firearm against a database of prohibited persons, and to turn him or her in to federal authorities if they find a match.

"The message of this initiative is simple," Strickland declared the day he announced Exile. "If you violate federal gun laws, you will go to federal prison. The goal of this program is to change the culture of gun violence in America."

Whatever its actual impact on crime and violence, Project Exile has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that it is massively effective when it comes to putting people in prison. In a January 11 press release, the U.S. Attorney's Office reported that "of the 213 who have been convicted to date, federal judges have handed down sentences to 173 of them, with prison sentences totaling 10,883 months (over 900 years)." The remaining forty individuals are awaiting sentencing.

When they talk about Project Exile, federal authorities always talk tough. "The purpose of Colorado Project Exile is to get guns away from criminals so criminals can't use them to commit crimes," Suthers says. "Federal prisons aren't like your local county jail. They're scattered all over the country. So when you get sent to the federal pen, you're not getting visitors every week. You're miles from home, and you're there for a long time."

"The people we go after are the worst of the worst -- the bad guys, the career criminals --and we get them in the penitentiary for as long as we can," adds Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Special Agent Rich Marianos, who is also the lead investigator for Project Exile's Gun Task Force. "Removing them from the streets of Colorado is the best way to make those streets safer."

But these claims are vulnerable to debate. A review by Westword of every Project Exile prosecution through January of this year strongly suggests that the level of discussion over the initiative should be raised beyond a simple running tally of convictions and prison sentences. This is especially true in the cases of the 191 individuals who were prosecuted only for possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, and not for violating other federal firearms laws such as those against making false statements to gun dealers or against possessing an unregistered machine gun.

These prosecutions represent the driving ideology of Project Exile, because the defendants most likely would not have been prosecuted prior to its existence (see Down and Out).

Among the findings from these 191 cases:

• The majority of the defendants -- 154 out of 191 -- have no violent felonies on their records; two were illegal aliens with no criminal record at all. Among the 37 who do have a history of violence, seventeen did not use a gun in their previous crime. This means that just slightly more than one in ten of the prohibited persons prosecuted under Project Exile -- twenty out of 191 -- has a proven history of gun violence. Among those twenty, the most common charge was "felony menacing," meaning the person had brandished a gun but hadn't pulled the trigger. Only four of the defendants had been convicted of actually shooting a gun during a crime.

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