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Federal prosecutions at 20-year low, but that's about to change

The Pew Research Center just released a very interesting analysis of recent trends in federal prosecutions. Specifically, the respected nonpartisan fact tank found that Department of Justice activity peaked in 2011 but then began to drop. Today, the Justice Department is prosecuting drug charges, property offenses, immigration violations and other crimes at the lowest level in 20 years -- while at the same time, crime itself is at the lowest rate since 2006.

Why is this important to a criminal defense lawyer? Well, when people are afraid, they make different choices about how to respond to criminal defendants than they might if they weren't as afraid. Therefore, it's crucial for people to have an accurate understanding of how much crime there is in the U.S. and whether it is on the rise or petering out.

As you may know, President Trump has repeatedly insisted that homicide is at an historically high rate, or at least that the rate is disturbingly high in cities. Not so, according to our nation's two agencies responsible for collecting the real data, the FBI and the Bureau of Crime Statistics.

Overall crime is low in the U.S., and federal prosecutions are correspondingly low

Keeping in mind that the U.S. is in no way experiencing any sort of a crime wave, let's take a closer look at the Pew Research Center analysis. The researchers divided all federal crimes into four categories: Drug violations, property crimes, immigration offenses and "other," because drug, property and immigration offenses were the three most common types of crime charged by federal prosecutors. They then looked at all defendants charged in federal court, whether with a felony, a Class A misdemeanor, or certain petty offenses.

Here's how the 2016 numbers compared to the peak prosecution year of 2011:

  • Federal drug offenses: Charges filed against 24,638 defendants in 2016, down 23 percent
  • Immigration violations: Charges brought against 20,762 people, down 26 percent
  • Property and white collar crimes, such as fraud and embezzlement: 10,712 people charged, down 39 percent
  • Other crimes: Prosecutions up slightly in some areas, notably gun crimes, of which there were 3 percent more prosecutions

On the whole, 77,152 people were haled into federal court last year, which was a decline of 25 percent. Gun crime prosecutions were not just higher than in 2011 but were actually up 9 percent in a single-year increase over 2015.

Sessions implies that feds haven't been prosecuting enough gun, drug crimes

Despite all this hard data to the contrary, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, "We've seen a priority that's slipped away from firearms on the federal level. ... Firearms prosecutions have gone down. This downward trend is going to end."

Indeed, Sessions plans to increase federal prosecutions dramatically. In one of his first speeches to law enforcement after being confirmed, Sessions also blamed the recent opiate addiction crisis on Mexican drug cartels, whom he accused of creating new, lower-cost heroin. (Most experts believe the opiate addiction crisis is caused by over-prescription of opioid painkillers, causing people to become addicted and turn to opiates when they lose access to prescription medications.)

Sessions also repeated Trump's misinformation about violent crimes and homicide being on the rise.

If crime is down, why should prosecutions go up?

The answer seems again to be fear. "We need to take criminals with guns off the streets," Sessions cried at the meeting on March 15. "We need to put bad people behind bars."

Pressuring federal law enforcement to arrest more people and compelling federal prosecutors to file charges against more people? It just won't work if crime is down. What it will do instead is reduce the quality of the cases against these defendants.

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