By Dan Eggen and John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
The Justice Department under the Bush administration has retreated from prosecutions of mobsters, white-collar criminals, environmental crimes and traditional civil rights infractions, new department data show.
As part of a series of policy shifts that have greatly transformed the administration of federal justice, the department has strongly emphasized immigration and terrorism-related investigations. It has also devoted new attention to areas important to conservative activists, such as sex trafficking and obscenity, according to the department's own performance and budget numbers.
Such dramatic changes form a backdrop as the Senate Judiciary Committee considers today the nomination of former federal judge Michael B. Mukasey to be President Bush's third attorney general.
From 2000 to 2006, for example, there were large drops in the number of defendants related to environmental offenses (down 12 percent), organized crime (38 percent), white-collar crime (10 percent), bank robbery (18 percent) and bankruptcy fraud (46 percent), according to Justice Department statistics provided this week to The Washington Post. Money-laundering prosecutions related to drugs were also down nearly 25 percent, while the number of drug cases overall was stagnant.
There were simultaneous jumps in prosecutions related to immigration (up 36 percent), weapons cases (87 percent), official corruption (15 percent), and, most dramatically, terrorism and national security cases (876 percent). Indeed, Justice Department funds devoted to counterterrorism programs in Washington have tripled since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Department officials say the surge in resources for national security and terrorism probes, in particular, reflects the intense administration efforts to prevent another attack. But the number of terrorism-related defendants has been relatively small: Prosecutions peaked at 818 in 2003 and fell to 635 by 2006, and most of these were not for terrorist acts or plans.
The result is a department far less focused on the mob bosses, drug kingpins and bank robbers who have dominated much of its history, even as new FBI studies show a substantial rise in murders and other violent crimes over the past two years. The change has been so marked that, in a speech to a police group this week, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III signaled a desire to reinvigorate the department's emphasis on traditional crime-fighting.
"We are realizing that national security is as much about reducing the number of homicides on our streets as it is about reducing the threat of terrorism," Mueller said Monday in New Orleans at a convention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "Today, in pockets around the country, we are seeing the first steady increase in street-level crime since 1993. As a result, we must view criminal threats differently than we did in the immediate aftermath of September 11."
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said some categories of crime have been key priorities of the Bush administration, including terrorism, illegal gun possession and child exploitation. He also noted that overall prosecutions for all crimes are at an all-time high.
"Clearly, since September 11, the administration's top priority has been counterterrorism," Carr said. "That's reflected in the creation of the National Security Division and the vast resources we've devoted to investigating and prosecuting terrorism cases. . . . The department's commitment to all areas of federal prosecution is shown through the president's funding requests to Congress, which have shown steady increases for all department divisions over the past six years."
The statistical trends examined in this article are based on numbers provided by the Justice Department's Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. The trends are similar, but not identical, to recent findings by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), an independent research organization at Syracuse University that tracks monthly Justice Department prosecution statistics.
Several favorite conservative causes saw marked increases in prosecutions during the first six years of the Bush administration. The number of defendants prosecuted for child-pornography offenses nearly tripled, from 594 in President Bill Clinton's last year in office to 1,549 in fiscal 2006. Likewise, obscenity prosecutions more than tripled, from eight defendants in 2000 to 26 last year.
While traditional civil rights cases fell, the number of defendants prosecuted for human-trafficking-related crimes rose from just two in 2000 to 65 six years later.
Perhaps most strikingly, the department's statistics show that Justice is now in large part an immigration enforcement agency: More than 19,000 defendants were charged with immigration violations in federal district courts in 2006, surpassing every other category except drug crimes. The data compiled by TRAC indicate that federal magistrates handled and disposed of an additional 18,000 immigration cases in 2006.
Carr said the surge in immigration cases was largely caused by demands from Southwestern states to beef up enforcement along the border with Mexico. "This is a targeted -- rather than national -- emphasis in the states that are facing incredible immigration challenges," he said.
Asked about the shifts, David Laufman, a former senior Justice Department official who prosecuted some of the nation's most prominent terrorism cases in Northern Virginia, said that the FBI, after the Sept. 11 attacks, turned increasingly to state and local law enforcement agencies to pick up some of the slack in non-terrorism areas.
He also said that a portion of the increased immigration prosecutions stemmed from a strategic decision by the administration to use such cases to detain or deport terrorism-related suspects when there was not enough evidence of other crimes.
"Prevention and disruption of terrorism was a paramount priority, and immigration prosecutions became one of the government's most favored tools for neutralizing people believed to pose a security threat, especially when the government lacked admissible evidence that the individual had committed a terrorism offense," Laufman said.
Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a liberal-leaning group that monitors judicial nominations and other justice-related issues, contends that the shifts in prosecution are part of a broad effort by the Bush administration to force the Justice Department to target individuals based on politics rather than purely on law enforcement goals.
"While torture memos and firing scandals have captured the public's attention, the politicization of the Justice Department under the Bush administration is far more widespread and insidious," Aron said in a written statement. "Michael Mukasey, if confirmed, will certainly have his work cut out for him."
Spending on all of the department's programs rose significantly after September 2001, although many showed diminished prosecutions. The department's criminal division, for instance, experienced a 29 percent gain in spending under Bush even as its prosecutions of many traditional crimes such as bank robberies and organized crime plummeted.
The department's environmental crimes section also experienced a 44 percent spike in its budget, and its staffing reached a record 40 full-time prosecutors in 2007. Yet, by 2006, the number of defendants prosecuted for environmental offenses had fallen by 12 percent.
Budgets for the 93 U.S. attorney's offices also grew, by more than 40 percent over the past six years, although many federal prosecutors say they remain short-staffed in many areas.
Gene R. Voegtlin, legislative counsel for the police chiefs' organization, said the federal government's retreat from local crime-fighting has greatly frustrated local law enforcement agencies. Federal assistance has fallen from $2.5 billion in 1997 during the Clinton administration to $1.1 billion in the Bush administration's 2008 budget proposal, according to the police group.
The assistance has declined steadily, while violent crime rose 1.9 percent last year, following a 2.3 percent rise in 2005, FBI records show. Those two years saw the first steady increase in violent crime since 1993.
Voegtlin, speaking of the federal assistance programs, said that "these are critical programs designed to target crime around the country that have either seen massive reductions or outright elimination under this administration. It's obviously not the only reason crime is going up, but it makes the job of law enforcement that much harder."
"This administration had its own view on the role of the federal government in fighting crime at the local level, and it's one we often don't agree with," Voegtlin said.
Mueller, in his Monday speech, suggested that while terrorism will remain the FBI's top priority, "we can provide help on the criminal side."
"Some of you may have less daily contact with FBI agents on drug cases, bank robberies and smaller white-collar criminal cases," Mueller told the police chiefs. "You may have asked of us at one time or another, 'Where are you?' Let me assure you: We are with you. Our emphasis has changed, but we still understand the impact of violent crime."
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu, staff researcher Madonna Lebling and database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.