At 23, Tremelle J. Young had amassed a criminal record replete with charges of domestic violence, brandishing guns, assault and attempted murder. Often, the charges here were dropped or bargained down, and Young had spent only a few years in jail.

That was until Young ran through a yard and into a doghouse during a police chase in 1997 and came up against Project Exile, a potent law enforcement program that is sending run-of-the-mill Richmond street crimes to federal courts, where sentences are longer and most defendants don't make bail.

Police found a loaded semiautomatic pistol in the doghouse, but before prosecuting Young locally, they turned him over to federal authorities. Young was convicted under three obscure federal gun provisions and was sentenced to more than 17 years in federal prison.

In court last September, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer told Young he was a prime example of Project Exile's target: "A person that is violent and roaming the streets just committing crimes." And Young was indeed exiled -- sent 553 miles from Richmond to a high-security penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.

Young is one of more than 295 defendants imprisoned under the fledgling program, which has come to be seen as both city savior and political lightning rod.

Richmond officials credit Project Exile with helping cut the city's murder rate by more than 30 percent each year since 1997. And in this year of the gun, even archenemies in the gun control debate -- such as President Clinton and the National Rifle Association -- say they love Exile. That leaves the administration in an awkward position, with the NRA touting an administration program as a way to preempt the broader gun controls Clinton supports.

Instead of taking off around the nation, Exile is scratching for funds as its fans argue over the right way to back a winner.

With Congress back this week, the battle shifts to Capitol Hill, where the Justice Department's hard-fought budget must go through a House-Senate conference.

The Clinton administration is seeking $5 million to expand "firearms initiatives," including Exile, to other cities. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) has called the amount "a joke," and the Senate has voted to spend $27 million, more than five times that much. At the same time, though, the Senate cut the Justice Department's total budget and slotted the Exile funds, in large part, for cities where murder rates are low or dropping. Most of those cities are in the home states of senators on the key Appropriations Committee.

"I hope it doesn't get caught up in politics," said U.S. Attorney Helen F. Fahey, whose Richmond office created Exile. No matter what happens elsewhere, she vowed, "we're going to continue doing . . . what needs to be done."

Even as murder rates were dropping nationally in the late '90s, Richmond was plagued by intractable gun violence. "Everybody carried a gun," said Bill Dunham, the resident agent in charge of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) field office here. "'Dis shootings" -- violent reactions to some insult -- were common, according to Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks (D). In this city of 200,000, there were 139 murders in 1997, one of the highest rates in the nation.

But that year, two federal prosecutors came up with an intriguing strategy: Marry the ability of local police to arrest gun-packing suspects after routine crimes with the federal system's strict, mandatory sentences and stiffer bail rules.

Given turf battles and the different missions of state and federal authorities, the two systems seldom met, let alone married. Police arrests typically went through Virginia courts, where most defendants were released on bail before trial and gun charges paled next to murders and rapes, according to local and federal authorities.

"The practice [in state courts] was to deal 'em and plead 'em," said one federal prosecutor of routine gun charges.

Nor were federal authorities in Richmond aggressively targeting low-level gun cases in the mid-1990s, according to federal law enforcement sources and statistics.

The union at first was rocky. Local officers laughed at what they saw as another slogan-spewing, short-lived federal anti-crime push. James B. Comey, the executive assistant U.S. attorney, remembers a struggle with ATF headquarters in Washington. "We fought them cats and dogs . . . [over] doing these quick-hit cases," Comey said, because their "marching orders" were to focus on broader investigations.

Now, two years later, much has changed. A state-local-federal task force meets weekly to divvy up gun cases to ensure each goes to the jurisdiction that carries the biggest stick. Murders are down another 30 percent so far this year, according to Richmond police. "I've never seen anything make such an impact," said Sgt. Steve Ownby.

In terms of impact, Exile has a unique advantage: It's likely the only law enforcement program with a six-figure advertising budget, donated by the community and the NRA.

Stark billboards and drive-time radio spread Exile's message: "An illegal gun gets you 5 years in Federal Prison." TV commercials portray the desolation of jail time, and a city bus, swathed in black, takes the grim Exile slogan through town. "Everybody knows Exile," said Kim Johnson, a young woman riding the bus last month. "They all try to keep from getting busted with their gats [guns]."

Exile has netted defendants ranging from big fish to what some critics call "minnows."

Melvin "Bug" Smith, who was charged in 1997 on federal gun violations, was later indicted in five murders when recalcitrant witnesses came forward, according to prosecutors, after learning he was in jail.

Debra Denise DePriest was also charged through Exile after police found a "small amount" of marijuana and a gun in her apartment, according to her attorney, Thomas P. Collins. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 months.

"Why does this woman belong in federal court?" Collins asked. "There are some people that just shouldn't be there."

Comey defends the prosecution of DePriest, who, he said, was seen as "a female drug dealer" who had a "fairly powerful automatic weapon" in her home.

Jeroyd W. Greene III, Tremelle Young's attorney, said that since Young's 1998 federal trial, new evidence "raises more doubt" as to whether Young possessed the handgun found in the doghouse. Greene is seeking a new trial.

"Not everybody [prosecuted under Exile] is John Dillinger or `Bug' Smith," Comey acknowledged. Prosecutors have dismissed charges against 43 suspects, he said.

Alfred Blumstein, an expert on crime at Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University, believes Exile is a powerful deterrent precisely because it not only targets "the worst of the worst" but also sends an unwavering message: "We will get you however nice a guy you are."

While "many criminal acts can be impulsive," carrying a gun is a decision, and if authorities raise the stakes, people may leave the gun at home, Blumstein said.

Still, the program has critics. Federal judges in Richmond say the onslaught of cases has turned their courtrooms into "police courts," because local law enforcement has shirked its duty.

The program's cost also runs beyond the obvious need for prosecutors and ATF agents. It funnels more defendants into the crowded federal system, where it costs about $22,000 a year to house a prisoner. The local U.S. Probation Office, which does detailed reports on each defendant, has seen its caseload almost triple since Exile came along.

With word-of-mouth public relations and a national advertising boost from the NRA, the program or its clones have spread to Rochester, N.Y., Philadelphia, San Francisco-Oakland and elsewhere.

President Clinton has praised Exile in a radio address, but he has not showered it with resources.

For instance, the Justice Department has run some training programs for police and loaned an extra prosecutor to the U.S. attorney's office. The ATF field office in Richmond, where the caseload has skyrocketed, has the same number of agents today as in 1996, according to Dunham, the resident agent in charge.

"If the Justice Department was interested in [Exile], all they'd have to do is tell the U.S. attorneys to do it," said Specter, who helped earmark $1.5 million to start the Philadelphia program last year.

But instead of authorizing new dollars for Exile next year, the Senate told the Justice Department to find the $27 million in its upcoming and reduced budget to start firearms programs in several "crime corridors," including Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Denver, Baltimore and Charleston, S.C. Baltimore had 311 murders last year, but crime experts were puzzled by the other choices. Charleston, for instance, had seven murders in 1998.

Murder rates in these cities, said Blumstein, "are not crying for great new efforts."

A spokesman for the Republican-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee said that the corridors were chosen because they are "transit points for drugs," where federal intervention would have a regional effect. One Democratic Senate aide, however, said the cities were picked to garner votes from individual senators.

A Justice Department official said that while Exile is "an effective program" for Richmond, "we don't favor a one-size-fits-all approach from Washington, D.C." Each community must customize a program, she said, adding that only Congress can come up with "new money" to pay for them.

Meanwhile, the NRA has donated more than $1 million to jump-start Exile in several cities and has used Exile as a weapon to battle broader gun control proposals. In national newspaper ads, the NRA has challenged Clinton to "announce your support for Project Exile in other cities."

"The NRA will seize on anything they can to divert attention from the need for common-sense gun laws," said White House spokesman Barry Toiv.

Said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre: "If it's politics, it's sincere politics." The administration is "playing insincere politics."

Research editor Margot Williams, staff researcher Bobbye Pratt and and Computer-Assisted Reporting Director Ira H. Chinoy contributed to this report.