Shifting Enforcement Priorities

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While immigration enforcement remains at an historic high in relation to population, referrals for criminal prosecution from the investigative agencies responsible for combating other federal crimes are on the decline, according to a new Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) analysis. (See Figure 1 and Table 1.)

Government enforcement efforts are largely determined by the availability of resources and there is no question there has been a substantial growth in the number of federal investigators focusing on immigration matters. But fully explaining the steep enforcement declines over the past two decades found in agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (down 51 percent), Secret Service (down 67 percent), Postal Service (down 45 percent) and Internal Revenue Service (down 36 percent) — all of which have long had major responsibilities for fighting white collar crime — is more difficult. (See Figure 2 and Table 2.)

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The new TRAC analysis — based on an examination of 6.8 million Justice Department records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act — focused on clocking each instance over the last twenty years when the various investigative agencies recommended that federal prosecutors file criminal charges.

One possible explanation for the decline in government enforcement efforts — when immigration is excluded from the counts — is the impact of 9/11/01. And the FBI has frequently noted that because of the government's heightened concern about the threat of terrorism it has pulled a substantial number of agents away from the traditional kinds of enforcement of the past, assigning them to intelligence, national security and counterterrorism duties.

But partly because agencies like the Secret Service, the Postal Service and the Internal Revenue Service do not focus on terrorism and espionage cases, the 9/11 theory may not fully explain the decline in their referrals for matters like mail fraud, tax fraud, counterfeiting and financial fraud. While the 9/11 explanation makes more sense when it comes to the FBI, it should be noted that some significant declines were recorded in the annual number of FBI referrals before that tragic day. (See Figure 3 and Table 3.)

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A second possible explanation for the declining number of referrals being made by the agencies traditionally concerned about white-collar criminals is that there are fewer swindlers, anti-trust violators, tax cheats, fraudulent health care providers, etc. roaming the streets and the suites than there were in the past. Partly because such criminals try very hard to go unnoticed, however, criminologists have never been able to devise a good way to measure their presence in society. But given the vast size and booming nature of the American economy — at least until recently — and the growing complexity of federal law, the thought that white-collar criminals are an endangered species is hard to believe.

The Losers: Agency by Agency

As noted above, four agencies experienced sharp declines in making criminal prosecution referrals over the past twenty years: the FBI, the Secret Service, the Postal Service, and the IRS. Figures 4 and 5 compare their relative contribution to criminal referrals overall in fiscal years 1987 versus 2007. Their shrinking importance is evident when one compares the sources for federal criminal referrals in 1987, 1997 and 2007 (see also Table 4).

Agency Losers  
FY 1987 FY 2007  

The FBI. From the first days of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, this agency has been viewed as the nation's leading investigative body for dealing with organized crime, white collar crime, official corruption, bank robbers, etc. But when its recommendations for prosecution are charted over the last two decades, as shown above in Figure 3, Justice Department records document that its role as the nation's number one crime fighting agency is rapidly shrinking.

In FY 1987, for example, FBI criminal prosecution referrals were the single largest source of federal prosecutor workload — comprising more than one out of every three (36%) prosecution requests. Today FBI referrals now account for less than one out of every six (16%) cases. The shift is equally dramatic when examined by the actual counts. In 1987, agents working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) asked the prosecutors to bring charges against 41,292 suspects. Twenty years later, in 2007, the number was down to only 25,129.

The Secret Service. The decline registered by the Secret Service during the same period was even more dramatic. Here the Justice Department data showed that in 1987 the 12,160 Secret Service referrals made up about one out of every ten (10.6%) of all such federal prosecution requests. Last year, Secret Service criminal prosecution referrals had dropped to only 5,070 in number and represented only a very small fraction (3.3%) of the federal prosecutors' incoming workload.

The Postal Service and the IRS. The IRS also has seen a similar decline in its criminal referrals over the past decade. In 1987, its share was 2.9%. Ten years later, in 1997, IRS referrals had increased to 3.2%. But 2007 criminal referrals by the tax agency declined to only 1.7% of all such actions. The trend over the last two decades for the Postal Service was downward: 5.8%, 4.0% and 2.9%.

The Gainers: Agency by Agency

The agencies whose "market share" increased during the twenty-year period have generally been assigned separate narrow enforcement responsibilities that for the most part do not involve the prosecution of white-collar criminals.

Agency Gainers  
FY 1987 FY 2007  

Immigration and Naturalization Service (DHS Immigration). The data show, for example, that of all the major federal investigative agencies the organization that had the most dramatic surge when it came to recommending prosecutions was the one responsible for the regulation of immigration. In 1987 that agency — then situated in the Justice Department — was credited with making 8.6% of all federal referrals. Ten years later, this proportion had grown to 9.9%. In the most recent fiscal year, however, now under the Department of Homeland Security, those offices were credited with making 27% of referrals overall (see Figure 6 and Table 4).

This growth is particularly dramatic when examined by the raw numbers in Table 1 where the annual count jumped from 9,883 in 1987 to 41,645 in 2007.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The surge in prosecution referrals from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was dramatic — 3.3% of all referrals in FY 1987, 4.4% in 1997 and 9.4% in 2007.

Customs Service (DHS Customs). Though the number of Customs Service referrals were much smaller than those of both the INS and the ATF, the trend in its proportion of all federal referrals was also generally up as compared with twenty years ago, although its numbers plateau during the last ten years. In FY 1987 customs matters represented 2.6% of all referrals, 6.1% in 1997, and 5.1% in 2007 after transfer of the agency to the Department of Homeland Security.

Defense Department. The overall number of referrals credited to the various investigative arms within the DOD is also growing in relation to the overall counts: 2.4% in FY 1987, 3.1% in 1997 and 4.0% in 2007.

State/Local Authorities. Municipal and state law enforcement agencies have for many years submitted a handful of their recommendations for prosecution to the United States Attorneys rather than local prosecutors. In FY 1987, these referrals represented only 1.3% of the total. But for 1997 and 2007 the proportion had expanded to 2.8% and now 3.4%.