DEA at Work
Regional Patterns in Drug Enforcement

For more than 130 years, a series of laws and presidential executive orders have required the Attorney General to provide overall coordination of federal enforcement efforts. In the case of drugs, the attorney general's coordinating responsibilities recently have been shared with the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the White House "drug czar."

The basic goals behind this mandate have always been same: make federal enforcement more effective, make it more fair. Justice Department enforcement data, however, provide tentative evidence that neither the attorney general nor the drug czar have been very successful in pushing the agencies, the prosecutors and the courts to focus their enforcement activities on the most important targets or to provide the American people with equal justice under the law.

Consider the Drug Enforcement Administration, the central Justice Department investigative agency when it comes to enforcing the nation's drug laws.

On a per capita basis, the four districts with the largest number of DEA referrals in fiscal years 1998 were New Mexico (Albuquerque), Texas West (San Antonio), Texas South (Houston) and New York South (Manhattan.) See map and table of ranks. Given the flow of drugs across the border with Mexico and smuggling potential in the nation's largest city, the DEA would appear to be aiming its enforcement activities towards parts of the country with the highest need. But a listing of the agency's ten most active districts (table)included some other areas where the DEA's emphasis on drugs was harder to understand. These areas included Iowa South (Des Moines), Vermont (Burlington) and Georgia Middle (Macon).

Even more confusing were some of the areas where the DEA was reported to be least active (table). California Central (Los Angeles) ranked 72 among the 90 districts, New Jersey 79, Illinois North (Chicago) 85 and California North (San Francisco) 87. Los Angeles and San Francisco, of course, have long been viewed as major centers for the import, production and use of illegal drugs.

In terms of the effectiveness and fairness of the government's overall enforcement effort against drugs, the work of the prosecutors and the courts often is as important as that of the investigators. One measure of this joint responsibility is the length of time required from when the DEA refers a matter for prosecution to when the matter is disposed of. For the nation as a whole, the median processing time -- half the referrals took more, half less-- was 272 days. But the district-to-district range in this key indicator was considerable (see map). The median times in West Virginia North (Wheeling), New York West (Buffalo) and Massachusetts (Boston) were 1,382 days, 825 days and 736 days, far longer than the national DEA median. This compared with 27 days in California Central (Los Angeles), 134 days in Texas South (Houston) and 168 days in Alaska (Anchorage.) See table.

It is clear that one factor influencing processing time of criminal matters is the complexity of the underlying cases being presented by the DEA. But other forces, which also might be a concern of the attorney general, obviously are at work. Is the Justice Department, for example, making sure that nation's assistant U.S. Attorneys are being put to work were they are most needed? What about the court system? Are the administrators making sure that the different districts have sufficient judges to process the cases being recommended for prosecution by the DEA and other federal agencies?

Considerable regional variations are also found in the sentences imposed on DEA defendants depending where they are convicted (map). In four federal districts in fiscal year 1998, for example, the median DEA time was ten or more years. These districts were Wisconsin West (Madison), North Carolina Middle (Greensboro) Georgia South (Savannah) and North Carolina East (Raleigh). At the other end of the scale, there were five districts where the median DEA sentence was two and a half years or less. The districts with comparatively light sentences were Maine (Portland), New Mexico (Albuquerque), Tennessee West (Memphis), Texas South (Houston), New York West (Buffalo) and Arizona (Phoenix). See table.

Because most federal cases are resolved without a formal trial and judges have only limited discretion under the mandatory sentencing guidelines, disparity in DEA sentences is largely the product of the discretionary decisions of individual agents and prosecutors.

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