Syracuse, N.Y.--March 13--Prison sentences for those
convicted of federal drug crimes declined significantly
in the 1992/1998 period according to data drawn from
the Justice Department, the Administrative Office of
the Courts and the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
Data from the Department's Executive Office for U.S.
Attorneys, obtained by the Transactional Records Access
Clearinghouse (TRAC) under the Freedom of Information
Act, showed that the average federal drug sentence went
from 86 months in 1992 to 67 months in 1998, a drop
of 22 percent. Similar but less precipitous declines
were registered by the Courts and the Sentencing Commission.
Although definitional differences meant the counts by
the three organizations were not the same, the parallel
trends in the data strengthen the conclusion that federal
drug sentences are substantially down.
The decline appears to have begun during the last
year or so of the Bush Administration and continued
during the Clinton years. Several factors may explain
the drop. Federal prosecutors, for example, may be persuading
more drug defendants to cooperate. Under the Sentencing
Guidelines, defendants who provide useful information
usually get less time. Another contributing factor might
by Congress' approval in 1994 of the so-called "safety
valve" law giving judges more flexibility in
the sentencing of low level drug defendants.
[For additional information about the government's
drug enforcement effort go to http://trac.syr.edu/media.
There you will be offered two basic choices. One option
is to go to TRAC's free public web sites on the DEA
and Customs. The second choice is TRACFED, a news-only
site with data about all federal enforcement activities,
as well as more detailed information on the DEA and
Customs. TRACFED's subscription service also offers
very detailed staffing information and masses of demographic
and economic data organized by county, state and federal
judicial districts. The embargo for Monday, March 13,
is intended to give reporters time to contact DEA and
Customs officials, federal prosecutors and others regarding
their views about the government's actual drug enforcement
During the same 1992/1998 period that sentences were
moving lower, the number of federal drug prosecutions
by all federal agencies dipped and then rose. The 21,571
federal drug convictions in fiscal year 1998 appear
to represent an all time high.
For all federal agencies, marijuana was involved in
more 1998 convictions than any other single drug, with
powder cocaine and crack cocaine coming in second and
third. The percentages were: marijuana, 34%; powder
cocaine, 28%; and crack cocaine, 17%.
Selected DEA enforcement indicators were mixed. The
proportion of DEA prosecutions resulting in conviction
was up, 81% in 1998 compared with 75% in 1992. The trends
in DEA sentences, however, were down. Averages declined
to 75 months in 1998 from 94 months in 1992. Median
DEA sentences--half got more, half got less--were also
Long term data about the Customs Service show that from
1981 to 1998, the agency racked up a dramatic thirteen-fold
increase in convictions, largely because of its intense
focus on drugs. This sharp increase in Customs enforcement
activities means the agency now ranks number two in
the federal government on drug prosecutions, only behind
the DEA. In fact, the 1998 Customs total of 4,730 drug
convictions was slightly more than the combined total
achieved by the FBI, ATF, INS and IRS.