TRACDEA and TRAC Customs Menu

Special Advisory

News About Federal Drug Enforcement on TRAC's
Separate Sites on the DEA and Customs Service
Embargoed for Monday, March 13 (6:30 PM Sunday)

     Federal Drug Sentences Are Significantly Lower

     Marijuana Involved in More Federal Convictions than Any
     Other Single Drug, Second Was Powder Cocaine, Crack Third

     Customs Now Number Two in Federal Drug Convictions

Syracuse, N.Y.--March 13--Prison sentences for those convicted of federal drug crimes declined significantly in the 1992/1998 period according to data drawn from the Justice Department, the Administrative Office of the Courts and the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Data from the Department's Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) under the Freedom of Information Act, showed that the average federal drug sentence went from 86 months in 1992 to 67 months in 1998, a drop of 22 percent. Similar but less precipitous declines were registered by the Courts and the Sentencing Commission. Although definitional differences meant the counts by the three organizations were not the same, the parallel trends in the data strengthen the conclusion that federal drug sentences are substantially down.

The decline appears to have begun during the last year or so of the Bush Administration and continued during the Clinton years. Several factors may explain the drop. Federal prosecutors, for example, may be persuading more drug defendants to cooperate. Under the Sentencing Guidelines, defendants who provide useful information usually get less time. Another contributing factor might by Congress' approval in 1994 of the so-called "safety valve" law giving judges more flexibility in the sentencing of low level drug defendants.

[For additional information about the government's drug enforcement effort go to There you will be offered two basic choices. One option is to go to TRAC's free public web sites on the DEA and Customs. The second choice is TRACFED, a news-only site with data about all federal enforcement activities, as well as more detailed information on the DEA and Customs. TRACFED's subscription service also offers very detailed staffing information and masses of demographic and economic data organized by county, state and federal judicial districts. The embargo for Monday, March 13, is intended to give reporters time to contact DEA and Customs officials, federal prosecutors and others regarding their views about the government's actual drug enforcement practices.]

During the same 1992/1998 period that sentences were moving lower, the number of federal drug prosecutions by all federal agencies dipped and then rose. The 21,571 federal drug convictions in fiscal year 1998 appear to represent an all time high.

For all federal agencies, marijuana was involved in more 1998 convictions than any other single drug, with powder cocaine and crack cocaine coming in second and third. The percentages were: marijuana, 34%; powder cocaine, 28%; and crack cocaine, 17%.

Selected DEA enforcement indicators were mixed. The proportion of DEA prosecutions resulting in conviction was up, 81% in 1998 compared with 75% in 1992. The trends in DEA sentences, however, were down. Averages declined to 75 months in 1998 from 94 months in 1992. Median DEA sentences--half got more, half got less--were also down.

Long term data about the Customs Service show that from 1981 to 1998, the agency racked up a dramatic thirteen-fold increase in convictions, largely because of its intense focus on drugs. This sharp increase in Customs enforcement activities means the agency now ranks number two in the federal government on drug prosecutions, only behind the DEA. In fact, the 1998 Customs total of 4,730 drug convictions was slightly more than the combined total achieved by the FBI, ATF, INS and IRS.

TRAC is a non-partisan data gathering, research and data-distribution organization associated with Syracuse University. TRAC has been supported by the University, the Rockefeller Family Fund, the New York Times Company Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and many other organizations. TRAC's embargo on the information about the DEA and Customs is intended to give news organizations adequate time to contact responsible government officials for their comments. For detailed information go to

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