Federal White Collar Crime Prosecutions At 20-Year Low

Table 1. White Collar Crime Prosecutions
Number Year-to-date 5,173
Percent Change from previous year -12.3
Percent Change from 5 years ago -29.1
Percent Change from 10 years ago -11.2
Percent Change from 20 years ago -36.8

Federal prosecution of individuals identified by the government as white collar criminals is at its lowest level in the last twenty years, according to the latest data from the Justice Department.

The available records show an overall decline that began during the Clinton Administration, with a steady downward trend — except for a three-year jump early in the Obama years — continuing into the current fiscal year.

During the first nine months of FY 2015, the government brought 5,173 white collar crime prosecutions. If the monthly number of these kinds of cases continues at the same pace until the end of the current fiscal year on September 30, the total will be only 6,897 such matters — down by more than one third (36.8%) from levels seen two decades ago — despite the rise in population and economic activity in the nation during this period.

The projected FY 2015 total is 12.3 percent less than the previous year, and 29.1 percent down from five years ago.

These counts are based on tens of thousands of case-by-case records obtained from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

The decline in federal white collar crime prosecutions does not necessarily indicate there has been a decline in white collar crime. Rather, it may reflect shifting enforcement policies by each of the administrations and the various agencies, the changing availabilities of essential staff and congressionally mandated alterations in the laws.

White collar crimes — as defined by the EOUSA — involve a wide range of activities including the violation of health care, tax, securities, bankruptcy, antitrust, federal procurement and other laws. Because such enforcement by state and local agencies for these crimes sometimes is erratic or nonexistent, the declining role of the federal government could be of great significance.

Bar chart of shortyear
Figure 1. White Collar Crime Prosecutions over the Past Twenty Years

The long term downward trend in the prosecutions of these matters going back to FY 1995 is more clearly shown in Figure 1. The vertical bars in Figure 1 represent the number of white collar crime prosecutions recorded each fiscal year. Projected figures for the current fiscal year are shown. Each presidential administration is distinguished by the color of the bars.

Leading Investigative Agencies

Pie chart of agengrp
Figure 2. Prosecutions by
Investigative Agency

The leading investigative agency for white collar crime prosecutions through June 2015 was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, accounting for 27.8 percent of prosecutions referred.

As shown in Figure 2, additional agencies with substantial numbers of white collar crime referrals were: the Internal Revenue Service in the Treasury Department (15.8%), the Secret Service in Homeland Security (13.1%), the Postal Service (8.3%), and the Social Security Administration (5.3%).

The "Other" category in Figure 2 is comprised of a diverse group of agencies. The agencies with substantial numbers of white collar crime within the "Other" category were: Health and Human Services (4.9%), Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Homeland Security (3.5%), Customs and Border Protection in Homeland Security (3.0%), and other branches of Homeland Security (2.4%).

Top Ranked Lead Charges

Table 2 shows the top lead charges recorded in the prosecution of white collar crime matters filed in U.S. District Court during the first nine months of FY 2015.

The makeup of offenses being prosecuted has shifted over time. Twenty years ago, mail fraud under 18 USC 1341 was the most frequent lead charge. Ten years ago it was bank fraud under 18 USC 1344. Five years it was aggravated identity theft under 18 USC 1028A.

Currently, fraud by wire, radio or television under 18 USC 1343 tops the list of lead charges. This also topped last year's list. In second place are frauds involving public money, property or records under 18 USC 641. Bank fraud, which as mentioned above was in first place ten years ago, has fallen to third place.

Among the current top ten lead charges, the greatest projected increase in prosecutions involves health care fraud, prosecuted under Title 18 USC Section 1347. Such prosecutions have increased 5.45 percent from a year ago and are up 22.1 percent compared with five years ago.

Table 2. Top Charges Filed
Lead Charge Count Rank 1 yr ago 5 yrs ago 10 yrs ago 20 yrs ago
18 USC 1343 — Fraud by wire, radio, or television 617 1 1 4 4 6
18 USC 641 — Public money, property or records 403 2 4 9 8 14
18 USC 1344 — Bank Fraud 390 3 3 2 1 2
18 USC 1349 — Mail Fraud — Attempt and Conspiracy 366 4 2 6 24 189
18 USC 371 — Conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud US 330 5 5 5 3 5
18 USC 1029 — Fraud and related activity — access devices 314 6 6 8 5 3
18 USC 1341 — Mail Fraud — Frauds and swindles 291 7 7 3 2 1
18 USC 1028 — Fraud and related activity — id documents 268 8 8 7 6 36
18 USC 1028A — Aggravated Identity Theft 262 9 9 1 74 142
18 USC 1347 — Health Care Fraud 242 10 10 10 7 189

Top Ranked Judicial Districts

During FY 2014 the Justice Department said the government filed 25.1 white collar crime prosecutions for every one million people in the United States. If the pace during the first nine months of FY 2015 continues for the remainder of the fiscal year, white collar crime prosecutions will fall to 22.0 for every one million people in the United States.

Understandably, there is great variation in the per capita number of white collar crime prosecutions in each of the nation's ninety-four federal judicial districts. The districts registering the largest number of prosecutions of this type during FY 2014 are shown in Table 3.

Table 3. Top Ten Districts (per One Million People)
Judicial District Percapita Count Rank 1yr ago 5yrs ago 10yrs ago 20yrs ago
N. Y., S 80 309 1 4 3 5 5
Ala, S 67 42 2 1 6 11 6
Fla, S 65 340 3 5 2 4 14
La, E 59 72 4 13 5 29 33
Mo, E 57 124 5 9 9 8 22
W Virg, N 56 39 6 10 14 53 83
Wash, E 52 60 7 73 90 71 73
Alaska 52 28 8 71 26 15 36
Tenn, W 47 56 9 21 8 1 3
La, M 46 28 10 41 18 12 17

While the Southern District of New York (Manhattan) is often thought of as a locus for the prosecution of white collar offenses, this is the first time in twenty years that this district has led the country with the most white collar offenders prosecuted relative to population. The current rate of 80 prosecutions per million population in New York South is nearly four times the national average. While a wide range of fraud offenses were prosecuted, the largest number was for financial institution fraud.

Falling from first place for the prior three years, the Southern District of Alabama (Mobile) was ranked second in the number of white collar prosecutions per capita. Its rate of 67 prosecutions per million population was three times the national average. Many of these prosecutions were for business fraud.

The Southern District of Florida (Miami) was right behind the Southern District of Alabama with 65 prosecutions per million, the third highest rate in the country. Many of these were prosecutions for tax fraud and health care fraud.

There have been considerable changes over time in district rankings. For example, five years ago, Arizona topped the list with the highest number of white collar prosecutions per capita because of the very large number of fraud prosecutions for identity theft. Today it did not make the top ten as it has fallen to 11th place.

Ten years ago, the Western District of Tennessee (Memphis) had the highest per capita number of white collar prosecutions; now it has fallen to ninth place. And twenty years ago, the list was topped by the District of Columbia which for many years had the highest number of white collar prosecutions relative to its population. D.C.'s ranking started dropping in FY 2005, falling to seventh last year; it currently ranks in 42nd place.

The federal judicial district which this year shows the greatest projected growth in the rate of white collar crime prosecutions is the Eastern District of Washington (Spokane). Now ranked seventh in the nation, this district had already nearly tripled its number of white collar prosecutions from 21 last year to 60 during the first nine months of FY 2015. The largest number was for identity theft. Washington East also had the largest projected increase of any district — 615 percent — compared to five years ago.

Report Date: July 29, 2015
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