Driven largely by a focus on drugs, federal
records show that from 1981 to 1998 the U.S.
Customs Service racked up a dramatic thirteen-fold
increase in the total number of its convictions (
Overall, Customs convictions jumped to 5,522 in
1998 -- the most recent available year -- compared
with 411 in 1981. Completely dominating this surge
were drug convictions, 4,730 in 1998, 47 in 1981.
By comparison. the increase in convictions for
non-drug matters was far more modest, 792 in 1998
and 364 in 1981. (See
The surge in Customs convictions means it has
become the fourth most active of the federal
criminal investigative agencies -- judged by its
contribution to total federal convictions --
outranked only by the FBI, the INS and the DEA (graph).
By comparison, Customs came in twelfth in 1981,
well behind such agencies as the Postal Service,
the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National
Parks Service. In 1981, Customs ranked below other
major Treasury units – the IRS, the ATF, and
the Secret Service -- in convictions resulting from
its criminal investigations. By 1998 it had far
surpassed each of the other Treasury investigative
This transformation of Customs is a by-product of
the federal government’s emphasis on drug
enforcement. Customs now ranks second in drug
convictions won by all the federal investigative
agencies, coming in only behind the DEA (graph).
In fact, the 1998 count of 4,730 drug convictions
by Customs was slightly more than the combined
total of such actions achieved by the FBI, ATF, INS
and IRS (table).
The sharply increasing enforcement activities of
Customs, when added to that of the Immigration and
Naturalization Service (graph),
resulted in the overall number of federal
prosecutions in the nation increasing at a faster
rate from 1997 to 1998 than in any year since 1971.
Looking only at the record from 1992 to 1998,
Customs drug convictions came close to doubling. At
the same time, however, the number of criminal
investigators in Customs was slightly lower --
2,775 in 1998, 2,956 in 1992 (table).
The combination of substantial increases in drug
convictions and slightly fewer criminal
investigators, suggests that other aspects of the
agency's work load may be getting less attention.
Convictions for nondrug custom's offenses have in
fact been declining since 1993 (table).
While there has been a sharp increase in Customs
prosecutions, sentences have fallen in recent
years. The average sentence resulting from a
Customs Service investigation declined to 33 months
in 1998 (table),
compared with 52 months in 1994 (table).
Median sentences showed less change, but also
dropped in 1998. The downward trends in Customs
drug sentences paralleled declines in federal drug
sentences more generally (discussion).
However, sentences meted out for Customs nondrug
investigations also declined raising questions
concerning a possible erosion in the quality or
composition of the agency's cases.
While Customs Service sentences were growing
shorter, the median time required to complete a
Customs case was growing longer. In 1998, the
median --half took more, half took less -- was 170
In 1992, the median was 120. When compared to the
other major investigative agencies, Customs matters
were dealt with relatively quickly, with only INS
prosecutions moving at a speedier rate. The growing
number of days required to process a Customs case
during the 1992-1998 period parallel similar
increases in the time required for the prosecution
of all federal matters.