Federal Prosecutor Data
These counts are based on detailed analyses by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of hundreds of millions of records that were drawn from the internal administrative information recorded by each U.S. Attorney's Office (USAO). These records track the referrals that the separate offices receive and the action taken on each one. As part of their official responsibilities, each U.S. Attorney is charged with keeping detailed and accurate records of how each referral to federal prosecutors is handled and must certify to their accuracy at regular intervals. This matter-by-matter, case-by-case information was obtained by TRAC under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Public access to these records was achieved through a series of lawsuits brought under FOIA by TRAC.1
Role of U.S. Attorneys. United States Attorneys serve as the federal government's principal litigators. For example, under Title 28, Section 547 of the United States Code, U.S. Attorneys have responsibility for the prosecution of criminal cases brought by the federal government, as well as the prosecution and defense of many civil cases where the United States is a party. Appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, each United States Attorney serves as the chief federal law enforcement officer within his or her judicial district. Each United States Attorney, assisted by a staff of assistant U.S. attorneys, exercises wide discretion in responding to the priorities and needs of their district. U.S. Attorneys and assistant U.S. attorneys decide, for example, which individuals to criminally prosecute and which criminal referrals law enforcement agencies send them should be closed without filing prosecutions.
Federal Judicial Districts. There are 90 federal judicial districts covering the 50 states and the District of Columbia, plus four additional districts — one each for Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. (Because a single United States Attorney serves both Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, there are only 93 U.S. Attorneys.)
Time Period Covered. The entire set of files obtained by TRAC cover all criminal and civil referrals ("matters") received by U.S. Attorneys from FY 1974 to present.2 Available online are data from FY 1986. A fiscal year for the federal government starts October 1 and ends the following September 30. Thus, a fiscal year corresponds with the first 9 months of that year plus the last three months of the previous year.
Data Currency. The data is kept current by TRAC through requesting monthly updates which are then processed and added to our data warehouse, TRACFED. Some TRACFED access tools allow users to track information month-by-month, while others provide year-to-year comparisons. The data are now current through .
Scope of Information. The files track actions on a suspect-by-suspect, defendant-by-defendant, case-by-case basis, following each referral from receipt to its disposition. Hundreds of items of information, depending on which items are applicable to that particular case, are currently recorded including the lead charge, the investigative agency referring the case, and the specific Justice Department program area. Dates for each event or action are also included. Coverage includes matters that result in court prosecution, as well as referrals that federal prosecutors close or decline without filing a prosecution. The name of the assistant U.S. attorney who handled the case is also recorded.3 On matters closed without prosecution, information recorded includes the reason for declining to file a prosecution. On criminal referrals where the defendant is prosecuted, detailed information is recorded on each charge and its disposition along with the judge assigned. When the defendant is convicted, information on the sentence the defendant receives is recorded (for cases since 1992).
Some idea of the scope of information available online through TRACFED can be seen in this sample report. However, other information fields are also available. This is because not every information field pertains to, or is recorded for, every case. If no information was recorded in a particular case, that item is not shown in the report.
Statistical Comparisons and Rankings. TRAC analyzes these data and develops a variety of monthly and annual statistical series, including district rankings. In these series, each individual suspect or individual charged — as recorded by assistant U.S. attorneys in their files — is counted separately. This allows the same individual to be followed from the initial referral stage to its outcome. It is important to keep in mind that because most criminal referrals take months and even years to process, a new referral may not be acted upon until a following year, and prosecutions filed in one fiscal year may not be disposed of until a subsequent year.4
Individual Case Details. In addition to statistics, the online tools allow users to generate a report covering the details recorded on a case received or disposed of by a U.S. Attorneys' office since 1992 (see sample report).
Following are definitions of some basic terms you will encounter when using TRAC's statistical series.
- Referrals received versus referrals disposed of. Referrals received counts the number of incoming criminal referrals recorded as received by U.S. Attorneys in their files for a given time period. Referrals disposed of counts the referrals completed ("closed") in a given time period. Each recorded individual suspect or defendant involved is counted.
- Referrals declined or closed without prosecution. Counts the number of criminal suspects whose cases were referred to federal prosecutors on which the assistant U.S. attorney records that he or she "declines" to prosecute, or otherwise records closing the matter without filing a prosecution. In each case the reason for closing the case without prosecution is also recorded by the federal prosecutor.
- Prosecutions filed. Counts the number of defendants on whom information or an indictment was recorded as filed in the U.S. District Courts, or on whom a criminal complaint was filed in the United States Magistrate Courts. While historically the role of a U.S. Magistrate Court was limited to non-felony cases, its authority has been expanding. Although actual roles differ across districts, U.S Magistrates now have the authority to handle guilty pleas and conduct trials in misdemeanor cases as well as accept guilty pleas in felony cases. While criminal felony trials can only be conducted by U.S. District Court judges, as a practical matter most federal criminal cases are resolved through plea rather than trial.
- Convicted versus not convicted. Convictions counts individuals who have pled guilty, pled no contest ("nolo contendere"), or have been convicted after trial. Not convicted counts individuals who were found not guilty after trial or against whom all charges filed were dismissed by the court.
- Prison sentences. The prison sentence in months, handed down after conviction by the court. Since FY 2004, sentences of "time served" are recorded, along with information for jail sentences less than a month. An individual is counted as receiving a prison sentence if any prison time (even a day) is recorded, or a sentence of "time served" is shown. The average prison sentence is computed by adding up the prison sentences across all those convicted and dividing by the total number of individuals convicted. The average includes those who received no (zero) prison time. The median is computed in a similar fashion but records the prison sentence length where half of the defendants received shorter sentences, and half received longer prison times.
- Length of time. The number of days between the receipt of the criminal referral by the U.S. Attorney office and the court disposition and sentencing (prosecution time) or the closure without court prosecution (declination time). Time is recorded separately for each criminal suspect or defendant in court.
- Investigative agency referring the case. The lead investigative agency for each referral is determined by the prosecutors. The referrals received from any particular lead investigative agency can be identified and examined separately to view, for example, the FBI's criminal enforcement record, or that of any other federal investigative agency. If the referral was received from state or local law enforcement agencies, these referrals also can be separated out as a group; however, the particular state or local agency is not identified in the data.
- Lead charge. The lead statutory charge recorded by the assistant U.S. attorney assigned the matter. This assignment is based upon the judgment of the federal prosecutor as the most important charge involved and is recorded initially at the time the referral is received. While originally restricted to the U.S. Code title and section, sometimes information on the code subsection may be recorded. This occurs more often since 2004 when field widths in the federal prosecutors' database for recording the charge were expanded.
- Program area. The assistant U.S. attorney assigns a general program area as well as a more detailed program category to each referral at the time it is received, based upon the subjective judgment of the prosecutor on the nature of the offense(s) involved. General program areas include immigration, white collar crime, drugs, weapons, civil rights, environmental crimes, official corruption, terrorism, and regulatory offenses. Within each of these general areas, usually more specific categories are designated. For example, in white collar crime the referral could be classified as "health care fraud" or "tax fraud." Drug cases might be assigned to "drug trafficking" or "simple drug possession." As government priorities change, new program categories are sometimes established. For example, after 9/11 additional program categories for the terrorism cases were added, while more recently a separate category for tracking "mortgage fraud" was added.
1 TRAC's latest FOIA suits, filed in 2000 and in 2002, are still ongoing. The government's withholding of defendant names once cases are filed in court and court docket numbers are among the matters currently before the federal Court of Appeals.
2 While TRAC's data begin in FY 1974, the government systems used to record this information underwent much change over time. Along with this continual evolution in computer systems, particularly significant changes in the scope of information recorded and the encoding used occurred in 1986, 1992, and 2004. In 2004 with the migration from a legacy system to a modern relational database structure, for example, there was a substantial expansion in the level of detail recorded and centrally compiled across federal districts. See discussion of historical federal prosecutor data.
3 Recently, under the Obama Administration, the names of assistant U.S. attorneys started being redacted from the files even when they are a part of a public court record and available through the U.S. Courts online PACER system. The Justice Department is also now treating statistics on the number of assistant U.S. attorneys assigned to a judicial district as "law enforcement sensitive" and refuses to release this information (see TRAC report on staffing).
4 Events are "counted" based upon the date they are recorded in the U.S. Attorneys' database. This follows the practice adopted by the Justice Department in compiling its own statistics on U.S. Attorneys' actions. Occasionally this means that actions which occurred towards the end of a fiscal year and aren't recorded promptly end up being counted in the following fiscal year.