A program intended to reduce gun crimes through tougher federal prison sentences is marking a milestone. Rochester was one of the first U.S. cities to embrace Project Exile in the late 1990s.

At a downtown hotel, law enforcement gathered to mark the 21st anniversary of the tough-on-crime policy.

“Whatever we can do as a community we should do to help reduce the number of illegal weapons that are out there,” said Gary Mervis, chair of the Project Exile advisory board.

Mervis helped launch the program, when Rochester became the second U.S. city to implement Project Exile. Richmond, Virginia was the first. 

The program gives prosecutors the power to bring federal charges to certain gun-related crimes.

“They have one mission,” said Mervis. “And that's to see how many guns, illegal guns, they can get off the streets."

Outside the luncheon was a small protest. Lately, the program has become a target for criminal justice reform advocates. Juma Sampson considers himself a "survivor" of Project Exile.

“I'm a firm believer that Project Exile is not doing what it was intended to do,” said Sampson.

In 2000, Sampson was arrested with crack cocaine. Police searched his home and found a gun. He was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison under Project Exile.

Sampson served 19 years, and was released from federal prison seven months ago.

“This tough-on-crime approach, it may be good on paper, it may be good for political purposes,” he said. “But it's not good for our community."

Sampson believes money spent on housing federal prisoners would be better spent on education and opportunity. Critics say Project Exile fills prisons, doesn't get to the root of crime and unfairly targets people of color.

“This is just nonsense,” responded Mervis. “Like I said, no good deed goes unpunished."

Mervis points to a decrease in murder rates since Project Exile was implemented in Rochester. While some communities have moved away from similar programs, supporters here say it remains an effective crime-fighting tool.

“I wouldn't be giving the time I do to this if I didn't truly believe it makes a difference,” said Mervis. “And this is my community."