The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How America stopped prosecuting white-collar crime and public corruption, in charts

Paul Manafort arrives for a hearing at U.S. District Court in Washington in June. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Memo to all those supposed law-and-order fans out there, including in the White House: The United States is currently on track to notch the fewest prosecutions of white-collar and public corruption crimes on record.

And presumably not because erstwhile white-collar criminals and corrupt public officials have suddenly started behaving themselves.

I mentioned this in my Tuesday column, which was pegged to the glitzy Paul Manafort trial (and various other financial/corporate/political scandals in Trump World). The column included the following chart, showing the decline in federal white-collar crime prosecutions.

These data come from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. TRAC found that at the Justice Department’s current pace, this fiscal year will see the fewest white-collar prosecutions on record (1986 is the earliest year available).

Let’s take a look at some other trends in federal prosecutions, shall we?

Here’s the chart for official corruption prosecutions, which looks about as bad. Once again, this year we’re expected to have the fewest prosecutions on record.

Same goes for criminal prosecutions referred by the Internal Revenue Service to the Justice Department. These include prosecutions for white-collar crimes (lots of tax-related fraud, as you might imagine), but they also cover other categories, such as drug-related crimes. I’m singling out IRS-referred prosecutions because the agency has suffered enormous budget cuts, leading it to lose about a third of its enforcement agents since 2010.

Note that these charts do not account for population growth. Once you factor in population size, the slide in prosecutions looks even more dismal. We’re on track to have about 17.5 federal prosecutions of white-collar crimes per 1 million people in the population this year, which is half the average rate of prosecutions since 1986.

For official corruption prosecutions, expect about 1.1 per million people this year. That’s also about half the long-term average rate, and just a third of the peak rate in 1998.

And finally, here are criminal prosecutions referred by the IRS. We’re on track to have 2.7 prosecutions per million in population. That’s a quarter of the peak in 1992 — and probably not because tax cheating has gone down by three-quarters in that time.

Note that for all these measures, the slide in prosecutions began before President Trump took office. But the numbers are especially low this year, perhaps in part because his fixation with other kinds of crimes (chiefly, immigration-related ones) has crowded out resources for other kinds of investigations and prosecutions.

That includes drug crimes, by the way. In a recent report, TRAC found signs that in some areas, Customs and Border Protection has shifted away from pursuing cross-border drug offenders as it devotes more manpower to immigration offenses.