Decline in Federal Prosecutions from ATF-Led Investigations

During the first ten months of FY 2011, federal prosecutions credited to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have fallen almost 7 percent from the previous fiscal year. This continues a downward slide that began six years ago, according to an analysis of timely Justice Department data by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

So far this fiscal year, the number of ATF-led investigations that resulted in prosecution have totaled 7,282. If the same pace continues for the remaining two months, criminal filings should reach 8,738. This would be 18 percent fewer than the peak in FY 2005 of 10,715 ATF prosecutions during the Bush Administration (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.

The ATF is the federal agency with the primary responsibility for the investigation of a wide range of crimes involving the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, arson and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products. The case-by-case Justice Department data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that this year slightly less than three out of four of the agency's prosecutions (73 percent) were classified by federal prosecutors as weapons matters. An additional 20 percent of the prosecutions investigated by ATF were classified as drug cases.

The decline in the overall number of prosecutions credited to the ATF by the U.S. Attorney offices comes at a time when the Office of Personnel Management reports that the total number of ATF employees increased by 5 percent during the same period, growing from 4,865 in FY 2005 to 5,092 as of June 2011.

However, there also has been a shifting emphasis towards drug-related investigations. Since ATF-referred prosecutions peaked in FY 2005, the number of weapons prosecutions actually has fallen by 32 percent, a much higher rate than for ATF prosecutions overall. Making up the difference has been the growing number of drug cases, up by 26 percent during the same period.

To the extent that drug cases are more serious, and more serious cases take longer to complete, the decline in the volume of cases would be understandable despite ATF's increase in staff. Justice Department sentencing data appear to offer some support for this possibility. The median sentence during FY 2011 in ATF-referred drug cases, for example, was 70 months — substantially longer than the median sentence of 48 months for weapons cases. When cases of all types are considered, the median sentence for all ATF prosecutions increased from 51 months in FY 2005 to 57 months during the first ten months of FY 2011. This increase was almost entirely explained by the increasing proportion of drug cases.

ATF Prosecutions Around the Nation

The Justice Department data for the first ten months of FY 2011 shows that there is wide variation among the federal judicial districts in the rate of prosecutions resulting from ATF investigations. What particularly stands out is how — when measured relative to each district's population size — the ATF presence in many of the "big city" districts is comparatively small.

Among the 94 federal districts, for example, California Central (Los Angeles ) had only one fifth (21 percent) as many ATF prosecutions relative to its population as the national level. New York East (Brooklyn) had only one fourth (25 percent) the national level, while California North (San Francisco), New Jersey, and Massachusetts (Boston) all were around only one third (33-36 percent) of the national rate. Illinois North (Chicago) was modestly higher but still had only 40 percent of the national level.

In contrast, the top ranked district in the nation at over four times (419 percent) the national rate relative to its population was Alabama South (Mobile), followed closely by Georgia South (Savannah) at 415 percent of the national level. Rounding out the top five were Tennessee East (Knoxville) with over three times (329 percent) the national rate, New Mexico at 300 percent, and West Virginia South (Charleston) at 292 percent of the national rate.