By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Prosecutions of nearly all federal crimes in the District have taken a steep dive, with one research group estimating a 67 percent decline in the past five years.
A depleted band of prosecutors in Washington pursued half as many federal gun and drug crimes in fiscal 2007 as were prosecuted a year earlier, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which monitors federal prosecution statistics. Over the same period, the number of federal corruption cases filed against public officials dropped an estimated 64 percent and federal white-collar fraud cases dropped 25 percent.
Across the nation, Justice Department prosecutors have long felt the strain as law enforcement resources shifted toward national security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. FBI agents who were traditionally available to investigate fraud and some violent crimes disappeared to chase terrorism leads.
Washington's U.S. attorney, Jeffrey A. Taylor, acknowledges a steady decline in prosecutions in the federal courthouse by his office over the past five years but says that, because of an increase in cases this year, the decline is closer to 40 or 45 percent. And he says the federal numbers do not reflect a rise in his office's prosecution of some crimes in D.C. Superior Court.
Taylor said the downward trend, which has been more pronounced in the past two years, reflects his office's decision to marshal scarce resources and target the most serious white-collar criminals and the leaders of homicidal drug gangs in federal court.
"If it was just about bringing up the numbers, we could flood the federal courthouse with small, stand-alone drug and gun cases," Taylor said. "But it would not be serving justice, it would not be a wise use of resources and it would not be in the interest of public safety for this community."
In several large and well-respected U.S. attorney's offices, budgets, staffs and federal criminal caseloads have shrunk, but not as sharply as in Washington's. The Washington office, the largest in the nation, is unique in that it prosecutes local and federal crimes.
The Southern District of New York, based in Manhattan, as well as federal prosecutors' offices in San Francisco and Detroit have experienced significant drops in the number of defendants they have prosecuted in recent years, according to TRAC, which obtains and analyzes Justice Department enforcement data.
The organization's statistics show federal prosecutions also fell in the past five years in Maryland and in the Eastern District of Virginia, but to a lesser extent than in the District. The U.S. attorney for Maryland, Rod J. Rosenstein, disputed the findings, saying his records show that prosecutions by his office are up.
Nationally, the number of federal prosecutions has risen 13.8 percent in the past five years, largely because of an increase in immigration and national security cases.
Overall, TRAC reported, the number of federal prosecutions in the District fell from 728 in fiscal 2002 to 237 for fiscal 2007, which ended Sept. 30. White-collar prosecutions fell from 97 in fiscal 2002 to an estimated 39 in fiscal 2007. Public corruption cases dropped during the same period from 27 to five, TRAC reported.
Taylor said he is proud of the office's selectivity in targeting cases for federal court. He stressed that his office continues to aggressively pursue all solid gun or drug cases.
Starting in summer 2006, after absorbing a Justice Department-mandated 14 percent cut in its budget, the U.S. attorney's office in Washington began steering minor gun and drug cases and smaller fraud cases to Superior Court, Taylor said. That coincided with a stiffening of penalties for those offenses in the local court, he said.
Superior Court records show no appreciable change in overall caseloads. However, Taylor said his office has prosecuted twice as many felons for possession of a firearm this year than last year, a jump from 57 to 111, since steering some of those cases to Superior Court.
When told of the downturn, some local activists expressed concern about what it could mean for community safety. Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, said residents and Congress should be appalled by the falling federal court prosecutions.
"District residents and the nation's capital are clearly getting shortchanged on justice," he said. "If federal prosecutions are falling, that ultimately means some crimes are falling by the wayside. Our current crime situation is extremely serious. The city needs across-the-board help on the crime front now."
Judges at U.S. District Court generally applaud the office's emphasis on more complicated and high-impact prosecutions rather than numbers-generating, small-bore drug or gun possession crimes. They cite several months-long racketeering cases the office has pursued against specific drug gang bosses and lieutenants.
"We're seeing these sophisticated cases his office is bringing, and we have no complaints," said U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who has presided over several of the drug kingpin trials. "We don't want the simple stat cases."
Although there is no question that federal prosecutions in the District are down, there is significant disagreement about the data TRAC used.
The TRAC research group, founded in 1989, is an independent organization based at Syracuse University that charts monthly Justice Department prosecution statistics. Its analysis ranks the District as having one of the most dramatic long-term slides in criminal prosecutions among 94 U.S. attorney's offices.
The office had 728 federal criminal prosecutions in fiscal 2002 and 403 in fiscal 2006, a drop of 45 percent in four years, TRAC reports. Justice Department statistics show a less dramatic drop of 29 percent from 719 cases in fiscal 2002 to 513 in fiscal 2006.
The disagreement centers primarily on activity in recent months. In the first nine months of fiscal 2007, TRAC reports, the U.S. attorney's office in Washington had 197 federal criminal prosecutions; TRAC projects it will have 237 for that year. If true, that would create an overall five-year drop of 67 percent.
But Taylor and his staff said they have filed 367 federal criminal prosecutions from January to October, and so TRAC's figures are impossibly low. By Taylor's numbers, the five-year drop is closer to 40 or 45 percent.
In Maryland, Rosenstein said his criminal prosecutions have gone up, contrary to TRAC's numbers. There the dispute centers on the counting of federal magistrate prosecutions, which include traffic offenses and minor crimes. Rosenstein said those numbers could skew the trend because they have been reported to the Justice Department much less routinely in recent years.
Excluding such cases, Rosenstein said, his number of federal prosecutions rose from 680 in fiscal 2002 to 796 in fiscal 2007.
Aside from the numbers, there is significant controversy about whether raw statistics are an accurate measure of prosecutors' performance.
Stevan Bunnell, former criminal division chief of the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, left this summer to head O'Melveny and Myers's white-collar defense practice. He said TRAC's statistics fail to distinguish time-consuming congressional investigations and sophisticated drug conspiracy cases from less-complex matters.
"The TRAC data further confirms the danger of what I like to call 'an accountant's view of justice,' especially if one of the conclusions people draw from the data is that we need to get on those federal prosecutors to bring more cases," Bunnell said. "I'd like to see federal white-collar prosecutors be more selective about the cases they bring, not less. Good federal prosecution is about quality, not quantity. Federal prosecutors should not be federalizing small local crime."
Finally, there's the budget pinch that prosecutors acknowledge has had a big impact nationwide. In 2006, the D.C. office was one of the 19 largest federal prosecutors' offices that were required by the Justice Department to absorb budget cuts ranging from 10 to 15 percent.
The number of federal prosecutors assigned to U.S. District Court in Washington, 110 during a high point in 2003, was cut to 89. In 2007, the number was further chopped to 76.
"The numbers are disturbing," said Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District's delegate to Congress. "These seem to be the result of the cuts Justice made on the District's law enforcement efforts."
Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.