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Several protesters call for end to Project Exile in downtown Rochester

Noelle E. C. Evans

Several people upset about a program that is supposed to cut down on gun violence in Rochester protested outside against it in downtown Rochester on Monday. 

Outside the Holiday Inn on State Street, a group of seven people stand holding signs reading ‘End Project Exile’ behind Juma Sampson. In 2000, Sampson was sentenced to 25 years and sent to a prison in Pennsylvania, far from family and his infant son.

“I feel that Project Exile definitely needs to be reworked," Sampson says. "The purpose of Project Exile is to remove violent offenders away from society, to arrest them. I received one of the longest sentences under Project Exile and of course my case is non-violent.”

Project Exile is an agreement between local District Attorneys and federal prosecutors to try cases of illegal gun possession in federal court, which means higher penalties if convicted. Monroe County has participated in the program since 1998.

Two years after Project Exile’s inception, Sampson was charged with selling cocaine, but because a gun was found in the home where he was living, he was prosecuted under the program.

Gary Mervis, chairman of the Project Exile Advisory Board, says that the program is about getting rid of illegal guns.

"If we get rid of the guns, then we can come together and solve all of the other problems," Mervis says. "But it wasn’t the intention of Project Exile to be a social service agency. It had one mission: and that’s to see how many guns – illegal guns - they could get off the streets."

Sampson say that the program does not address the root causes of crime, and disproportionately affects people of color, but Mervis says that last point is nonsense, because a lot of crime is committed in areas where people of color live.

"Most of those people are just good god-fearing law-abiding citizens that are there because this is where they chose to live and yet they are impacted by thugs and people who are carrying illegal weapons, and selling drugs, and committing crimes," Mervis says.

Credit Noelle E. C. Evans / WXXI News

Republican Congressman Tom Reed of Corning says that he’s proud of Mervis and of the work that’s being done through the program.

"You’ve got real leaders stepping forward and you’ve got partnerships that have now developed relationships between law enforcement community leaders people like Gary Mervis and others saying we’re willing to do the work and the results speak for themselves," Reed says.

However, Brighton Town Board member and congressional candidate Robin Wilt says that Project Exile is a failed program of the 1990s tough-on-crime era.

“It’s failed to reduce crime in any significant way. The factors that contribute to the rise and fall of the crime rate cannot be attributable to Project Exile in particular,” Wilt says.

Wilt adds that she hopes that Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley will stop enforcing Project Exile in her office. She says more could be done by allocating resources to communities that need the support instead.

Sampson is now calling for change - More education, more employment opportunities, more community connections with law enforcement, and an end to Project Exile.

“I do not want people to think that it takes prison in order to change a person," Sampson says. "It takes us to be smart on crime as opposed to being tough on crime.”