TRAC U.S. Customs Menu
U.S. Customs at Work
Recent Trends in U.S. Customs Enforcement

Driven largely by a focus on drugs, federal records show that from 1981 to 1998 the U.S. Customs Service racked up a dramatic thirteen-fold increase in the total number of its convictions ( graph).

Overall, Customs convictions jumped to 5,522 in 1998 -- the most recent available year -- compared with 411 in 1981. Completely dominating this surge were drug convictions, 4,730 in 1998, 47 in 1981. By comparison. the increase in convictions for non-drug matters was far more modest, 792 in 1998 and 364 in 1981. (See table.)

The surge in Customs convictions means it has become the fourth most active of the federal criminal investigative agencies -- judged by its contribution to total federal convictions -- outranked only by the FBI, the INS and the DEA (graph). By comparison, Customs came in twelfth in 1981, well behind such agencies as the Postal Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Parks Service. In 1981, Customs ranked below other major Treasury units – the IRS, the ATF, and the Secret Service -- in convictions resulting from its criminal investigations. By 1998 it had far surpassed each of the other Treasury investigative arms (table).

This transformation of Customs is a by-product of the federal government’s emphasis on drug enforcement. Customs now ranks second in drug convictions won by all the federal investigative agencies, coming in only behind the DEA (graph). In fact, the 1998 count of 4,730 drug convictions by Customs was slightly more than the combined total of such actions achieved by the FBI, ATF, INS and IRS (table).

The sharply increasing enforcement activities of Customs, when added to that of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (graph), resulted in the overall number of federal prosecutions in the nation increasing at a faster rate from 1997 to 1998 than in any year since 1971.

Looking only at the record from 1992 to 1998, Customs drug convictions came close to doubling. At the same time, however, the number of criminal investigators in Customs was slightly lower -- 2,775 in 1998, 2,956 in 1992 (table). The combination of substantial increases in drug convictions and slightly fewer criminal investigators, suggests that other aspects of the agency's work load may be getting less attention. Convictions for nondrug custom's offenses have in fact been declining since 1993 (table).

While there has been a sharp increase in Customs prosecutions, sentences have fallen in recent years. The average sentence resulting from a Customs Service investigation declined to 33 months in 1998 (table), compared with 52 months in 1994 (table). Median sentences showed less change, but also dropped in 1998. The downward trends in Customs drug sentences paralleled declines in federal drug sentences more generally (discussion). However, sentences meted out for Customs nondrug investigations also declined raising questions concerning a possible erosion in the quality or composition of the agency's cases.

While Customs Service sentences were growing shorter, the median time required to complete a Customs case was growing longer. In 1998, the median --half took more, half took less -- was 170 days (table). In 1992, the median was 120. When compared to the other major investigative agencies, Customs matters were dealt with relatively quickly, with only INS prosecutions moving at a speedier rate. The growing number of days required to process a Customs case during the 1992-1998 period parallel similar increases in the time required for the prosecution of all federal matters.

TRAC Copyright TRAC U.S. Customs Web Site About the Data About the Law TRAC Web Site