Living in Exile

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

"My judgment is questioned every day by appeals courts," Matsch snapped.

Allison persisted in prosecuting Crippen, who eventually pleaded guilty. When he sentenced her, though, Matsch deviated from federal guidelines and gave her just fourteen months. "This violation is a very technical one," he said at the time.

Strickland was still the chief federal prosecutor in Colorado during the Crippen case, and he signed off on her prosecution. Asked in writing if he still believes that putting Crippen in prison was consistent with the goals of Project Exile, Strickland writes, "Federal gun law provides that convicted felons forfeit their right to possess weapons. Enforcement of existing gun laws is a crucial part of reducing gun violence in America."

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.

Crippen will begin serving her federal prison sentence in 2004, once her state sentence is complete.

The commercial begins with the sound of wind whistling over a lonely prairie. The camera pans to cyclones of razor wire atop the high walls of a federal prison outside Yankton, South Dakota. It then cuts to an intake area inside the prison, where a newly arrived inmate is processed. Two guards walk him down a long hall to his awaiting cell. Other prisoners catcall and whistle at him.

Words flash on the screen: "Think carrying a 9mm makes you a man?"

There is a pause, and more whistling.

"Lots of people in federal prison find that attractive."

The screen fades to black. A Project Exile logo appears, along with this message: "Pack an illegal gun, pack your bags for prison."

Created by the prominent Madison Avenue advertising firm of Young and Rubicam, the TV spot was seen last summer by tens of thousands of Denver television viewers watching the Jerry Springer Show and World Wrestling Federation events. It was funded by Colorado Project Exile, a private nonprofit organization that raises money to support the federal program of the same name.

"Project Exile isn't just a partnership between federal, state and local law enforcement, it's also a partnership between federal law enforcement and local business and civic leaders," says Melissa MacDonald, executive director of the nonprofit group.

Officially endorsed by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, which passed a resolution in support of Colorado Project Exile as a response to the Columbine shootings, MacDonald's organization has raised more than $1 million in grants from several Colorado charitable foundations. Donors include the Coors Foundation, the Rose Foundation and the Colorado Trust, which granted Project Exile $250,000 as part of an ongoing seven-year, $8 million violence-prevention initiative. Exile is the only tough-on-crime element of the trust's initiative, which otherwise focuses on suicide prevention and outreach to children.

In addition to the TV ads, money raised by the nonprofit group went toward the making of a fifteen-minute training video shown to Denver police officers last spring during roll calls at all six of the department's substations.

"We did training sessions all hours of the day and night, and we covered every single one of the 64 roll calls," MacDonald says. "It was phenomenal. "We had someone there from the U.S. Attorney's Office to speak, and then we showed the video. The basic message of the training movie is if you bust someone and find a gun, make sure to check their record, and if they appear to meet the qualifications for Project Exile, notify federal authorities."

The organization also funded ads on billboards and bus benches that encouraged citizens to turn in felons they know who have firearms, offering a hotline number that rings in the Colorado Springs offices of the ATF. According to court documents, anonymous tips and confidential informants led to at least 26 Project Exile prosecutions last year.

Colorado Project Exile is an unusual entity, however, a private, nonprofit recipient of charitable donations used to support a federal law-enforcement crackdown.

"The easy answer for why they exist is that we can't fundraise," explains Dick Weatherbee, law enforcement coordinator for the Colorado U.S. Attorney's Office. "We have no mechanism to either solicit or accept funds from outside sources. Advertising is pretty expensive, and it's a significant part of one of our primary objectives, and we wouldn't have been able to do it without a nonprofit that raises money from non-appropriated sources."

But funding is flush now. Last November, when President Bush addressed the Conference of U.S. Attorneys in Washington, D.C., he announced $558.8 million in new funding to implement Project Exile -- which has been rechristened "Project Safe Neighborhoods" -- in each of the country's 93 U.S. attorneys' districts.

"If you use a gun illegally, you will do hard time," Bush said, sounding a familiar note. "This nation must enforce the gun laws which are already on the books."

By this time next year, Project Safe Neighborhoods will be nationwide.

As part of this expansion, Colorado will receive money for three new full-time federal gun prosecutors in addition to funding for eight new state and local prosecutors to help develop Exile cases.

The state will also get a one-time allocation of $500,000 for "gun-violence reduction programs." MacDonald expects that her group will get a good slice of that pie, meaning the nonprofit will become a federally funded organization that, in essence, will then be funding the federal government.

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