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Rise in gun prosecutions projected


If the current trend continues through the end of the year, federal authorities in Baltimore believe that they will prosecute at least one-third more gun cases than they did last year in the city.

The projected increase comes from an analysis of the first four months of Baltimore's new Project Exile program, which shows additional state gun cases as well. Under the program, federal prosecutors have agreed to take more gun cases in the city and use the threat of federal indictment to cajole other defendants into pleading guilty in state court.

Authorities believe that criminals fear the federal system, where the chances of being convicted are much higher and the likelihood of serving a prison sentence out of state is much greater.

The Exile program also includes a broad public service campaign, including new bus advertisements that start today.

"I want to emphasize that the program has only just begun," Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said at a news conference yesterday.

Others who attended the event said that the preliminary success of Project Exile puts to rest political fights that once dominated the gun-crime debate in Baltimore.

The city's top prosecutor described the effort as "united," and Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm echoed those remarks, adding: "There are no longer any more turf battles."

But there are critics of the program, including some attorneys and public defenders, who worry whether defendants fully understand the implications of their choice when they're pressured to plead guilty by a letter from federal prosecutors.

Some criminologists continue to question whether the Exile program has significantly reduced violent crime over time.

"Generally there is support for the Exile model, but there isn't a last word on its success in lowering violent crime," said Daniel Webster, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins University.

Criminologist David M. Kennedy, who conducted a study of Baltimore crime patterns in 1999, said the number of federal gun cases has risen and fallen in recent years "with no apparent impact on killing, which has been the general experience of most jurisdictions trying Exile."

Crime in Baltimore is up slightly over last year. According to Police Department statistics, homicides have risen 3 percent in the first five months of the year, while the number of shootings has grown 4 percent.

Summaries of cases compiled by state prosecutors show that they have struggled when they approach trial. They are handed cases bedeviled by mishandled evidence, arresting officers under indictment and juries skeptical of finding any defendant guilty.

Despite those challenges, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy expressed enthusiasm for the program yesterday, saying that putting away gun-toting criminals has gotten easier.

Gun cases in federal court in Baltimore dropped from 179 in 2000 to 109 in 2002, then rose to 158 in 2003 and remained flat until 2005, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. attorney's office. Those numbers don't account for cases with multiple defendants.

Statistics based on the first four months of this year project 96 federal indictments for gun cases for all of 2006. Last year, there were 71.

Officials combined those numbers with cases investigated by federal officials, but left for prosecution in state court, to say that all gun cases may rise to 129 this year -- an 82 percent increase.

They've also taken their message to the streets.

In addition to raising a large banner on the wall of Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center, police officers pass out Exile fliers in neighborhoods as part of the $95,000 media campaign. Public service ads have aired on the radio, and television spots should appear by year's end, officials said.

The Exile program includes another effort promoted by the U.S. attorney general that targets violent gun crimes in Baltimore and nearly two dozen other cities. But last week, the Justice Department inspector general said the agency in charge of the Violent Crime Impact Teams has yet to demonstrate that the program works.

According to the report, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has made faulty comparisons and drawn on insufficient data to conclude that the program is succeeding in driving down violent crime in cities that have Violent Crime Impact Teams. ATF officials vigorously defended the program and contested the results of the audit.

Other parts of the Exile program have been somewhat slower to come together, officials said. In the next two to three weeks, Rosenstein said, he expects to announce a new push to catch and prosecute those who buy guns in order to hand them off to felons.

But overall, local and federal officials heralded the coordinated approach to gun violence, saying the early numbers clearly show success.

"The message is getting out there," Rosenstein said. "There will be significant jail time for gun crime."

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