Living in Exile

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

Now Strickland is on the campaign trail, the Democratic front-runner in the race to challenge Republican incumbent Wayne Allard. And he's using Project Exile as the first and best example of his "involvement in issues that matter to Coloradans." However, last month Strickland canceled an interview with Westword in which he was scheduled to discuss Project Exile, citing a conflict with a campaign appearance. He asked instead to respond to questions in writing.

In doing so, he reiterated the Columbine link: "The tragedy at Columbine sent shock waves throughout Colorado and America," he wrote. "It reminded us all of the unacceptable level of gun violence in this country and led to widespread public demand for every level of law enforcement to do something. I took this matter seriously and did everything in my power to vigorously enforce existing federal gun laws, build a partnership with state and local law enforcement and bring the various sides of the gun debate together."

Colorado's Project Exile was modeled on a similar program established in 1997 in the high-crime city of Richmond, Virginia. Violent crime there steadily declined in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Proponents of Project Exile, including Strickland and President Bush, have repeatedly pointed to these statistics as proof that Project Exile works. But this argument ignores the fact that violent crime has declined in cities all over the country, something many experts have attributed to the booming U.S. economy of the late 1990s.

Gun violence in Colorado has also gone down since the rise of Project Exile. According to FBI crime statistics for 1999 and 2000 -- the most recent reliable numbers available -- homicides involving firearms here decreased from 125 in 1999 to 87 in 2000. Even discounting the Columbine homicides in 1999, that's a dramatic drop. Also significant is a decrease in gunshot-wound hospitalizations attributed to assaults: from 157 in 1999 to 117 in 2000.

But Colorado prosecutor Allison concedes that the relationship between these numbers and Project Exile is murky at best. "The measurement of the program's success is difficult," he says. "Homicide rates go up, homicide rates go down. We're in a long period where they've been declining, and of course we'd like to be able to say that shows we've been successful with Project Exile. That may be a stretch. But I can tell you one thing, having prosecuted criminals for thirty years, and that is that there are people alive today because of this program. I can't name them, but I'm absolutely convinced there are people who have not been killed, who have not gone to the ER, who have not been paralyzed from the waist down, who are alive and okay right now because somebody who had a gun illegally is sitting in prison instead of being out on the streets armed with that gun."

This argument appears to be going over well in Colorado, where Project Exile has remained free of controversy compared to its counterpart in Virginia. There the program has drawn fire from minority leaders who have claimed that Project Exile unfairly targets blacks, who, as in Colorado, make up the greatest number of Exile cases; of the 191 individuals prosecuted for possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, 77 were African-American, 41 were Hispanic, one was Native American, and 72 were white.

The Virginia program has also generated criticism from federal judges. In a 2000 decision upholding the constitutionality of Project Exile, judges for the United States District Court for Eastern Virginia took issue with its "substantial federal incursion into a sovereign state's area of authority and responsibility."

And in January 2001, Virginia U.S. District Court Judge Richard Williams wrote a letter to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist in which he complained, "Project Exile has transformed our court into a minor-grade police court. More than 200 gun-possession cases totally lacking in federal significance have been processed through our court. Not only does this do violence to the concept of federalism, but the cost to national taxpayers is at least three times more than if the state handled these cases."

U.S. District Court judges in Colorado who find their dockets increasingly crammed with Project Exile cases have yet to similarly lambaste the program in public -- with one notable exception.

The same month that Judge Williams was complaining to the Supreme Court, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch, best known for presiding over the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, ordered Allison in a court hearing to reconsider the government's case against Katica Crippen, the woman who was prosecuted for posing naked with firearms. One of only four women charged simply with illegal possession of a firearm (rather than other felonies) as part of Project Exile, Crippen was easily the most notorious. Federal sentencing guidelines called for her to do at least five years in addition to the remaining two years of her Colorado state prison sentence for her original 1997 felonies.

Judge Matsch wasn't having it. "How far is this policy of locking people up with guns going to go?" he asked Allison. "I want to know why this is a federal case. Who decided this is a federal crime?"

The prosecutor replied that the decision had been his and added that he was unhappy that Matsch would question his judgment.

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