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Officials Question Exile's Effects

The proposed bill, HB 2181, introduced by Delegate Kenneth R. Melvin, D-Portsmouth, eliminates the mandatory minimum for some offenses that involve drugs and guns and, in more serious ones, reduces the mandatory minimum from five years to two. It doesn't pull the rug out from Project Exile exactly, but it surely sends it teetering.

Melvin says the reason he's pushing for a revision is simple. Young people with no criminal records increasingly are the ones struck down by Exile's grip.

Melvin, a criminal lawyer, says he regularly sees judges stuck in a position of having to give first-time offenders a five-year sentence in federal prison. "This simply gives judges more discretion," he says.

Melvin's proposed bill would make only the possession of a firearm along with drug distribution subject to the five-year minimum mandatory sentence. The redefined law also could result in housing fewer offenders in state correctional facilities.

Warner had not acted on the bill by press time. A spokesman for the governor's office disputes news reports that Warner would sign the bill as it stands, saying further review was necessary. But, he notes, word has reached the governor's office that a number of state officials are "agitated over this" and have recommended that Warner veto the bill. Warner's decision was due by midnight, March 24.

Richmond's Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks says he will wait to see what Warner does with the bill before he weighs in. Still, he says, it may be time to reexamine Exile's effectiveness. Since it began six years ago, the number of defendants indicted under Exile has steadily decreased from 254 in 1997 to 87 in 2002. Hicks says a reason could be that the "quality of cases" has dropped, meaning the "serious bad guys" initially targeted by Exile have given way to kids caught with "crack-pipe residue and a gun in the trunk." — Brandon Walters

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