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Officials discuss return of Project Exile amid violent crime increase

RICHMOND, Va. -- As the summer heats up in the River City, people living in the city's public housing communities are fearful of a rising crime wave.

"I hear about somebody getting shot nearly every day," said resident Dianna Venable.

Venable lives in Whitcomb Court where five people, including two teens, were struck by bullets in a drive-by shooting early morning Tuesday, July 19.

The shooting, which left all with non-life threatening injuries, was among many that have caused concern for law enforcement officials.

It has been a year of violence that doesn’t drastically out shadow the previous year’s homicides. This year there have been 38 deaths in the city, compared to 31 at this time last year. The official homicide count that police shared is 29. The variance is that several have been labeled "death investigations" and Virginia State Police have taken over several investigations.

Five of the homicides this year involved the shooting deaths of teens.

Jacquesha "Billie" Clanton, 18, of the 2300 block of North 29th Street, died on June 15, after what was reported as a fight among multiple teens. In June, 15-year-old Christian Singleton and his best friend, 16-year-old Ketron Wells were shot on Decatur Street.

In March, Taliek K. Brown, 15, of the 400 block of East Brookland Park Boulevard and Mikkaisha D. Smoot, 16, of the 2100 block of Deforrest Street died from injuries sustained in a triple shooting.

Sheriff C.T. Woody said the recent crimes were “very concerning” and he found them “very disturbing.”

Richmond police and the Commonwealth's Attorney are in discussions with state and federal partners about Project Exile, a program in which a suspect caught with an illegal gun received an automatic prison time of five years. Critics said Project Exile disproportional targeted low income and minority communities.

"You need it now,” Woody said. “They're younger; they're meaner; they're wiser -- and they feel they don't have anything to live for."

Sheriff Woody was a city homicide detective when Project Exile was a top crime fighting tool in the late 90s.

Sheriff C.T. Woody

During that time, Richmond saw violent crime drop by 40 percent. During the 90s, yearly homicides were over 100, even reaching up to 160 in 1994.

"It's very effective when someone gets five years for a gun charge and automatically they don't come to the Richmond City Justice Center,” Woody said. “They will go maybe to West Virginia; they will go where it's going to be a hardship on the family to visit.”

But the program isn't discussed anymore; at least it hasn’t been for a long time.

"We've got laws on the books right now with stiff mandatory penalties,” said CBS 6 legal analyst Todd Stone. “But people don't know about them; if they don't know about it's not a deterrent.”

As a former city prosecutor, Todd Stone said the program went silent after the publicity stopped. That's because the funding to promote it wasn't there to keep the program going.

"I remember people specifically talking about Project Exile,” Stone said. “It was the big talk of the town and that's when the gun violence went down.”

Some experts credit the program with helping reduce Richmond's homicide race; however, critics said Project Exile disproportionally targeted low income and minority communities.

Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham and Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring will address 2017 crime trends and homicides at a news conference Friday at 10 a.m. at police headquarters.

They will also discuss the details involving Project Exile in Richmond.