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Groups take aim at Project Exile


Civil liberties and criminal justice reform groups are calling on Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley to pull out of a federal program that has some local gun cases turned over to federal prosecutors.

Federal charges for gun crimes carry harsher sentences than state charges.

Representatives of three groups - Enough is Enough, Citizen Action of New York, and the Genesee Valley chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union - say the program, known as Project Exile, does nothing to address the root causes of gun crime and unnecessarily separates offenders from their families and communities.

Doorley stands by the program, contending it has “been effective in combating gun violence.”

Juma Sampson, who spent 19 years in federal prison due to a Project Exile conviction, speaks out against the program during a press conference earlier this week. - PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • Juma Sampson, who spent 19 years in federal prison due to a Project Exile conviction, speaks out against the program during a press conference earlier this week.
Project Exile and programs like it rose to prominence in the 1990’s, along with a slew of other tough-on-crime policies grounded in the notion that tougher sentences would deter violent crimes, drug crimes, and gang activity.

In 1998, Rochester became the second city in the country to implement an “Exile” program, which was launched in Richmond, Virginia, a year earlier. Similar programs followed in localities around the country. Participation is voluntary.

But many of those places have since ended or modified their programs, as those policies came under scrutiny from studies that questioned their effectiveness and suggested they had contributed to the disproportionate incarceration of people of color.

Chris Barilla of Enough is Enough said cities across the country have abandoned Project Exile-style programs, and the harsher sentences that come with them, because they cause lasting damage to communities.

When someone from Monroe County is convicted of federal gun crime they can be sent to federal jails out of state.

That’s what happened to Juma Sampson, a Rochester resident who was released from federal custody six months ago after serving 19 years of a 25-year sentence - reportedly one of the longest in the program’s history. He has to complete another 8 years of post-release supervision, he said.

Sampson had initially been arrested on a felony drug charge. During a search of his residence connected to that arrest, law enforcement officers found a firearm, he said. The search warrant was based on information from a confidential informant, he said.

He was 23 then, and because he was charged with possession of a firearm in connection with another felony, the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office turned his case over to federal prosecutors.After his sentencing, he was sent — “exiled,” in his words — to a state to which he’d never been, with limited phone calls and visits. When there were phone calls or visits, he and his family had to shoulder their exorbitant costs.

“It’s a stress not just for a prisoner but for the people who love and care for them,” Sampson said.

Project Exile critics argue some of the money spent housing Sampson in prison for close to two decades could have been better spent on rehabilitative programs or education.

Samspon said harsher penalties for illegal gun possession aren’t likely much of a deterrent. It’s tough for inner city youth to consider penalties in light of the hardships they face.
He added that officials in the criminal justice system need to take smarter approaches to crime. If you’re tough on crime, then you’ll toughen people, he said.

“If we’re giving this out, what are we going to receive back?” he asked.

Doorley issued a statement responding to the groups’ call to back out of Project Exile.

She said that she believes “in certain areas, that a community based approach to proactive crime prevention is the most effective way to protect our community.” She pointed to her participation in “multiple community-based intelligence programs,” of which Project Exile is one.

Gary Mervis, the founder of Camp Good Days and Special Times as well as a former Assembly staffer, helped launch the program here. He chairs the Project Exile Advisory Board, a partnership between law enforcement, business leaders, medical professionals, community organization leaders, clergy, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office..

“As a member of the advisory board, I believe that Project Exile is beneficial to our community and has been effective in combating gun violence,” Doorley said in the statement. “All Project Exile cases are prosecuted by our federal partners at the US Attorney’s Office. Much of the gun crime we see at the District Attorney’s Office goes to the Gun Crimes Part in New York State Supreme Court. Project Exile is supported by the Brady Gun Lobby and the NRA and I fully support this joint initiative to prevent gun crime in our community.”

James Kennedy Jr., US Attorney for the Western District of New York, issued a lengthy statement in support of Project Exile.

“While it is difficult to quantify Project Exile’s success, I do know that the murder rate in
Rochester has never approached the levels they were at prior to Project Exile being formed,” Kennedy’s statement concluded. “Project Exile does not target any racial, socio-economic, or other demographic group, instead it focuses on those locations in which gun crime is the highest.”