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Attorney General Jeff Sessions encourages cities to revive 1990s crime strategies

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, right, accompanied by Deputy Attorney General Dana Bonte, waves after speaking to law enforcement officers in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, right, accompanied by Deputy Attorney General Dana Bonte, waves after speaking to law enforcement officers in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. – The Justice Department will encourage cities to revive violent crime-fighting strategies of the 1990s that focused on sending certain gun crimes to federal court, where they carry longer sentences in far-away prisons, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday.

Sessions continued to push his tough-on-crime agenda to law enforcement officials in Richmond, where one such effort had its origins.

Sessions credited that program, known as Project Exile, for slowing the murder rate through aggressive prosecution of gun offenses under federal laws, instead of the weaker state statutes. Conviction on a federal gun charge carries a minimum, mandatory prison sentence of five years, bond is less available and defendants are sent out of state to serve their sentences.

"I will promote that nationwide," he said, calling the effort "a very discreet effective policy against violent crime."

The comments further underscored Sessions' repeated promise to make fighting street violence a top mission of the Justice Department. That is a radical departure for a department that has focused more on prevention of cyberattacks from foreign criminals, counterterrorism and the threat of homegrown violent extremism.

Still, in his first month in office, Sessions has spoken more frequently about the need for federal involvement in ordinary crime-fighting, citing the need for harsh sentences for the most violent criminals. Last week, he urged the nation's federal prosecutors to devote more resources to prosecuting the worst offenders, lamenting a rise in murders as federal prosecutions declined.

Law enforcement officials, including FBI Director James Comey, credit Project Exile for a drop in murders in Richmond. But critics have said the program that began in the 1990s was racially biased and point to other reasons for declines in crime. Federal judges at the time expressed concerns about the wisdom of having federal agencies take over functions historically reserved for state and local law enforcement.

On racial disparities, Sessions said law enforcement has "to be so sensitive to those issues," but added, "When you fight crime you have to fight it where it is. You may have at some point an impact of a racial nature that you hate to see, but if ... it's focused fairly and objectively on dangerous criminals, then you're doing the right thing."

Sessions said he helped orchestrate a similar program called Project Trigger Lock when he was a federal prosecutor in Mobile, Alabama, during the height of the drug war in the 1980s and '90s. Investigators would seek ways to move certain traditional violent crime and gang cases to federal court.

"When I met in my communities, the people in those communities pleaded with us to have more police and do a better job of getting thugs off the street," he said. "I still go through there 30 years later and see the progress that was made."

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