TRAC U.S. Customs Menu
U.S. Customs at Work
Regional Patterns in U.S. Customs Enforcement

Internal administrative data from the Justice Department indicate huge variations in how most federal investigative agencies, including the U.S. Customs Service, enforce the law in different parts of the country.

In 1998, for example, almost two thirds of all referrals for prosecution by the U.S. Customs Service were made in just six of the 90 federal judicial districts in the United States. These six were California South (San Diego), Texas West (San Antonio), Florida South (Miami), Arizona (Phoenix), Texas South (Houston), and New York East (Brooklyn). Activity levels of Arizona and New York East, however, have been declining since 1992, while those of California South and particularly Texas West experienced large increases. (See map and table.)

Criminal enforcement activities of the Customs Service were notably less focused on these six districts in 1992. Indeed, with more and more effort in the targeted areas, the 1992-1998 period saw an absolute decline in referrals for prosecution by the Customs Service in the remaining 84 districts. (See table.)

Given the mission of the Customs Service, the concentration of its referrals in the five target districts along the nation's southern border and a sixth that includes the nation's busiest international airport (Kennedy) would appear to have considerable validity. But Justice Department data disclose some other regional variations that may be harder to explain.

As the nation and its federal criminal system has grown over the years, the investigative agencies and prosecutors within each of the federal districts have developed informal understandings that give them a powerful voice in how the law is enforced in their area. Although federal law, the underlying social "environment" and available staffing are factors in the formulation of the enforcement policies in a given district, the unannounced policies advocated by the regional administrators and U.S. Attorneys play an important but usually invisible role in how the system works in different parts of the country. (Because most criminal cases are decided without coming to a formal trial and Congress has approved laws designed to standardize sentencing, juries and judges have much less influence than they have in the past.)

Consider the quite different outcomes resulting from investigations by the Customs Service in the six districts where much of its work load is concentrated.

The sentences resulting from Custom Service convictions were quite varied. Focusing on fiscal year 1998, here is the median sentence in the six busiest districts: Florida South, 46 months; Texas South, 25; New York East, 24; and Texas West 18. In both Arizona and California South, the median was 12 months. (See ranking table for all districts.)

The Justice Department data also disclosed differences in the proportion of Customs Service referrals that resulted in prosecution. While prosecution rates were generally high, California South topped this list with 99.6 percent, while it was at the bottom, as noted earlier, in the length of prison sentences. Texas West was next where 97.5 percent were prosecuted, followed by Arizona with 96 percent and New York East with 94.1 percent. Both Florida South with 88.9 percent and Texas South with 88 percent had prosecution rates below ninety percent. (See ranking table for all districts.)

As is usually the case, the most active districts in terms of Customs Service criminal referrals had a relatively large number of criminal investigators.

But districts with comparatively larger numbers of investigators did not always generate more referrals. For example, while Arizona and Texas West had about the same number of criminal investigators in 1998, Texas West had nearly two and a half times Arizona's number of referrals for prosecution. While Arizona and New York East had about the same number of referrals for prosecution, Arizona had twice the number of criminal investigatgors. Florida South spent about 18 weeks of criminal investigator's time on average per criminal referral, while California South spent only 6 weeks per criminal referral. (See criminal investigators versus prosecution referrals for all districts.)

Time to process cases also varied. In 1998 in New York East, for example, the median time from when a referral was made by the agency to when the process was completed was 204 days. By contrast, the median time -- half took more, half took less -- in Texas South was only 129 days. (See table.)

TRAC Copyright TRAC U.S. Customs Web Site About the Data About the Law TRAC Web Site