The nation’s homicide rate has risen sharply in the past two years after a decades-long decline, and a record share of the murders, nearly three-quarters, are now committed with firearms. That has prompted some officials to endorse get-tough policies that, although politically popular, are ill-conceived and as likely to do harm as good.
Virginia is a focal point in the emerging debate over responses to the homicide spike, because candidates in the recent statewide political campaigns talked about it and because of a program implemented in Richmond, Virginia, in the midst of a previous surge in murders 20 years ago. That program, known as Project Exile, targeted gun criminals by diverting them from state to federal courts, where they received mandatory-minimum sentences in out-of-state prisons and were usually ineligible for bail.
In March, shortly after Jeff Sessions was confirmed as attorney general, he traveled to Richmond to call attention to the program, suggesting that reviving it would be an effective response to rising crime rates. As a candidate, President Donald Trump also embraced the program, and since then so did Republicans Ed Gillespie and John Adams, the unsuccessful Republican candidates in Virginia for governor and attorney general, respectively. Some Democrats also are supporters, including Richmond’s chief prosecutor, Michael Herring.
Project Exile, which was adopted by a number of sizable cities starting in the late 1990s, had an undeniable surface appeal. It ensured that gun crimes – for many ex-convicts and drug traffickers, especially – would be punished with minimum five-year prison terms, often far from a criminal’s home turf. (Hence the “exile” of the program’s name.) Firearm-related murders plummeted dramatically after the program went into effect in Richmond in 1997. Before long, Philadelphia; Rochester, New York; Denver; Camden, New Jersey; Oakland, California; Kansas City, Missouri; and other big cities had teamed with federal prosecutors to adopt similar approaches.
The trouble is, evidence was at best mixed on the program’s efficacy – to say nothing of the social price of sending convicts to prisons hundreds of miles from their families and children. One study from the University of Chicago suggested that Richmond’s murder rate would have fallen just about as fast without the program, as homicides were in decline in the late 1990s in many American cities without similar programs. In Rochester, which has retained a robust version of Project Exile for nearly 20 years, the homicide rate remains quite high – about five times higher than in New York City, which never embraced the program.
In fact, it is extremely difficult to untangle the causes of high murder rates and all but impossible to identify which of dozens of responses and factors to credit, and by how much, when murder rates fall. The program’s supposed benefits look even iffier when weighed against its human costs, which are often easier to identify – children growing up without being able to visit fathers, for instance.
Mandatory-minimum sentencing regimes are despised by many judges as a one-size-fits-all approach to crime-fighting; the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist was among those who denounced them. Politicians looking for quick fixes in the face of rising crime rates should examine the evidence first.