Not all federal judicial districts are created equal when it comes to federal prosecutors bringing criminal charges against individuals and businesses thought by the investigative agencies to have violated the nation's pollution laws, according to a unique new data base developed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).
The analysis of the district-by-district variation in how federal prosecutors handle pollution violators around the country was based on very detailed information obtained from the Justice Department by TRAC. The data in this case focus on the actions of the U.S. Attorneys operating in each of the 90 federal districts in the United States during the Bush Administration.
This totally new analysis is one in a series of special TRAC bulletins describing various aspects of how the federal government has enforced the environmental laws in recent years. With it, complete counts are available regarding all individuals who have been targeted for violating any one of more than 1,400 statutes, not just those cases where the prosecutors designated an environmental violation as the "lead charge." The data show that from the beginning of FY 2001 through the first quarter of FY 2004 federal prosecutors considered filing one or more pollution charges against 1,600 individuals and businesses. This bulletin focuses on environmental charges involving pollution issues -- air, water, hazardous waste, etc. Other bulletins will focus on other environmental areas, such as wildlife preservation, protecting the national forests, safeguarding public lands and guarding archeological resources.
Prosecution Often Declined
But, as fully authorized by federal law and practice, the U.S. Attorneys and their assistants throughout the country declined to prosecute well over half (922) of these individuals -- or 58 percent. On each of these, however, investigative agencies had referred the matter to federal prosecutors believing the evidence indicated they were criminal violators. See pie chart.
Among the most commonly cited reasons for declining to prosecute were weak evidence, lack of criminal intent, and agency request or office policy. See the table below for details.
Variation in the extent to which the individual U.S. Attorneys -- almost all of them appointed to office by the president -- choose to exercise their discretion is considerable.
Here, for example, is what the records show about a number of different districts around the country since 2001.
For information about each of the districts, see the table linked from the box at left.
Although individual U.S. Attorneys have in fact been granted a great deal of power in setting the enforcement priorities of their offices, other factors also should be recognized. Some areas may have much more serious pollution problems than other areas. The quality of federal investigators varies around the country, with some being more effective in developing their cases than others. In certain areas, state and local environmental agencies are more aggressive and thus can play a bigger role in enforcing the pollution laws in the geographic region covered by a particular federal office.