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Exile’s Reprise

Can a revived anti-crime message — and the voice of Henry Rollins — scare the city safe?

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An illegal gun still gets you five years in federal prison.

A refreshed advertising campaign created by the Martin Agency and carried by area media — all offering time and space throughout the year for free — is what promises to give Exile new might.

Exile’s future could depend not on a report card of improved statistics, but on the ratings points of public approval. And they’re high. City, state and federal agencies are cozying up to Exile again.

For City Manager Calvin Jamison, the public-awareness effort for Exile is one facet of what he calls his “comprehensive strategy” to reduce crime, which he presented last week to City Council. “Exile’s been lifting weights and now is bulked up,” he says.

Time will tell — and it’s crucial. With billions of dollars invested in economic development downtown, public safety and people’s perception of it is pivotal to the city’s success, Jamison says. And he and others are hoping attention on Exile will help ensure it.

The strength of Exile, both real and perceived, is based on the supposition that the threat of swift, certain and severe penalties for illegal gun use will deter crime. Cases are tried in federal courts where, upon conviction, sentences average 56 months. Offenders are locked up far from home in federal prisons as far away as Texas.

Begun in 1997, in just three years it helped cut Richmond’s murder rate in half — and then in half again. It also worked to drop the city from fifth to 75th in murders per capita.

Exile was highly touted. After three years it seemed to put the fear of punishment back into the criminal equation. It was used as a model for state and national law-enforcement and prosecution programs. President George Bush’s Project Safe Neighborhoods takes many of its tenets from Richmond’s Exile.

Initially, the provocative, pervasive Exile media blitz was funded by the program’s private arm, the Citizen Support Foundation. The National Rifle Association gave $200,000 to the effort. But after nearly four years of in-your-face advertising that included billboards, radio spots, television commercials and an eye-catching city bus driving its slogan through the streets, Exile’s visibility waned.

“There was the perception that it had gone away,” says Barbara Joynes, a partner with the Martin Agency, which originally marketed Exile and again has taken on the project. This time around, she says, the push is constant. “We know we need to do this 365 days.”

In its new incarnation, the Exile awareness campaign is as grim as ever. A city bus wrapped in gray with bundles of five handwritten lines — indicating the number of days five years in prison would mean — has hit the city’s streets. Billboards are cropping up. Posters will be placed on bathroom stalls in city schools and on Dumpsters warning: “Imagine living in this space for 5 years,” referring to the size of a cell. Faces are intentionally left out of the images. “We want the people who see them to paint their own picture of jail and see themselves there,” Joynes says. And punk singer Henry Rollins — whose friend was shot and killed in front of him — provides the voice for spots that will air on local radio stations.

There are two target audiences for the campaign, Joynes says: at-risk youth who were too young to remember Exile in its initial phase and former Exile felons who’ve done their time and are coming home. Likewise, Jamison says relaunching Exile’s message can do two things: educate people about the city’s commitment to public safety and prevent violent crime.

Exile has new partners, too, including the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. A steering committee of city officials, residents and members of the business community has formed.

Despite public perception, as a law-enforcement strategy, Exile has been ongoing. The city reports nearly 2,000 guns have been removed from the streets under the program; 1,064 defendants have been federally indicted. The Exile caseload increased from 203 in 2002 to 227 in 2003.

But an increase in caseload doesn’t necessarily mean more of Richmond’s hardened criminals are being removed from the streets. The number of indictments under Exile has steadily decreased. Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney David Hicks did not return calls for comment. But in an interview with Style last year, he suggested it could be time to re-examine Exile’s effectiveness. The number of defendants indicted under Exile has steadily decreased from 254 in 1997 to 87 in 2002. Hicks explained a reason could be the “quality of cases” had dropped, meaning the career criminals initially targeted by Exile had given way to kids caught with “crack-pipe residue and a gun in the trunk.”

Nevertheless, he credited much of Exile’s success to effective advertising that had engaged the community. “A person’s perception becomes their reality,” Hicks said. “If a person thinks the federal way is more of a deterrent than the state, I don’t care, as long as the end result is a safer street.”

As of March 20, 18 of the 21 Richmond homicide victims in 2004 died from gunshots.

Ninety-four people were killed in Richmond last year, most of them by guns. It’s these statistics that prove to the U.S. Attorney’s office, federal investigators, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, local and state police, the city administration and the public that — whatever its message — Project Exile has work to do. S

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