Prosecutions Turn Down
in Large Federal Districts

Criminal prosecutions have declined substantially in eight of the nation's twelve largest federal judicial districts, according to very timely case-by-case Justice Department data obtained and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

Among the outsized districts where the number of individuals charged with federal crimes has dropped — especially in recent years — are California Central (Los Angeles), California East (Sacramento), California North (San Francisco), Florida Middle (Tampa) Illinois North (Chicago), Massachusetts (Boston), Michigan East (Detroit), and New York East (Brooklyn). See Table 1.

Table 1. Click for more...

Of the twelve biggest districts in the nation, there were four where federal prosecutions were generally up. The one showing the sharpest increase was Texas South (Houston). Also up, although far less dramatically, were Florida South (Miami), New Jersey (Newark) and Texas North (Ft Worth/Dallas).

The declining number of prosecutions reported in the eight districts conflicts with the national trend where federal prosecutions, except in the most recent period, have been steadily increasing for the last two decades.

Figure 1. Click for more...

The federal district with the largest population — about 18 million people — is California Central (Los Angeles). Here, if the overall number of prosecutions recorded during the first seven months of FY 2007 continues for the whole year, there will be 20.9% fewer filings than there were in FY 2006. For longer time periods, the decline was 34.9% compared with five years ago, 19.3% compared with ten years ago and up slightly from 20 years ago. See Figure 1.

Texas South (Houston) has a population of a bit more than 7 million. In this district, while the projected FY 2007 prosecutions — largely dominated by immigration matters — are down by 8.3% compared with 2006, the long-term picture is very different: up 149% from five years ago, 378% from ten years ago and 329% from 20 years ago.

The sharp increase in the immigration prosecutions recorded by the Justice Department in Texas South is similar to the national trends for these actions — up slightly from 2006 but up by 116% for the last five years, 308% for the last decade and 333% since 1986.

Figure 2. Click for more...

Another perspective on this dramatic shift emerges from an examination of the immigration filings as a percent of all federal prosecutions. During the first seven months of FY 2007, for example, immigration matters made up 35% of the whole. This compared with 34% in FY 2006 and only 18% in 2002. By comparison, the changing picture of the Bush administration's drug enforcement effort matters was very different. In the first seven months of 2007, drug prosecutions only made up 19% of the total, less than the 25% in 2006 and 35% in 2002. See Figure 2.

When it comes to explaining the sometimes-dramatic shifts in federal enforcement trends, many different reasons must be considered. For example:

  • Announced and unannounced changes in government investigative priorities can be significant factor. In numerous public statements, FBI Director Robert Mueller has stated that because of 9/11/01 a large number of agents previously assigned to investigating matters that for many years had been handled by the bureau have now been re-assigned to dealing with terrorism. (Justice Department data show that very few terrorism investigations ever result in prosecutions.)

  • The senor enforcement official in each of the 90-plus federal judicial districts normally is the United States Attorney. Although appointed by the president and usually committed to the administration's general policies, individual U.S. Attorneys have the legal authority to set their own course. (For at least some of the eight U.S. Attorneys fired by Attorney General Gonzales, the government has said that one reason for the dismissals was their failure to follow various national policies.

  • Every year, acting upon the budget recommendations of the administration, Congress approves funds for hundreds of different government programs. In recent years, boosts in the dollars available to hire new Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have contributed to real increases in the prosecution of immigration-related crimes, particularly along the border with Mexico. The jump in immigration prosecutions has been a significant part of the overall growth in federal criminal filings.

  • When federal prosecutions go up or down in a particular district, prosecutors sometimes contend that the shifts were related to changes in the underlying crime patterns in the area. Because the government has no way to measure the actual extent of the types of crime that traditionally have been handled by federal prosecutors, this explanation is highly questionable. (While it is true that local police departments can carefully monitor crimes like the local murders which make up one of their most important concerns, the number of unlawful activities being committed by white collar criminals, corrupt public officials or illegal drug dealers among the population at large cannot be tracked, particularly within an individual federal district.

In addition to this summary report tracking the year-to-date federal prosecution trends in the 12 largest federal districts, TRAC has developed the Data Interpreter, a whole new tool providing long-term enforcement information for the nation as a whole and for each of the federal districts, large and small. This new service is available on the TRAC website at Along with the district-by-district prosecution and conviction information, the Data Interpreter also offers easy access to long-term trends for various laws and program categories as well as many of the investigative agencies. While the focused long-term reports that can be generated by the Data Interpreter are included with a TRACFED subscription, there is a small online charge for other users.