DEA National Profile and Enforcement Trends Over Time
Graphical Highlights

OVERALL: Federal Drug Sentences Substantially Down

Prison sentences for those convicted of federal drug crimes declined significantly in the 1992/1998 period, according to data obtained from the Justice Department, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the U.S. Sentencing Commission. (See discussion.)

Data from the Department's Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys show that the average federal sentences went from 86 months in fiscal year 1992 to 67 months in 1998, a drop of 22 percent (graph and table). Declines registered by the Courts and the Sentencing Commission were similar, although somewhat less precipitous (table). Definitional differences means that year-by-year counts of the three institutions were not the same, but the parallel trends found in the data strengthen the conclusion that there has been a systemic drop in drug sentences at the federal level.

The decline appears to have begun during the last year or so of the Bush Administration and then continued during the Clinton years. Several factors may explain the drop. For example, federal prosecutors may be persuading more drug defendants to cooperate. Under the Sentencing Guidelines, defendants who provide useful information usually get less time. Another factor may be the 1994 "safety valve" law giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing low level drug offenders.

During the same period that sentences were moving lower, the number of federal drug prosecutions by all federal agencies dipped and then rose, ending 1998 at a new high -- the largest volume of federal drug convictions in the nation's history. (See discussion.)

Marijuana was involved in more 1998 federal convictions than any other single drug, with powder cocaine and crack cocaine coming in second and third (graph). Of the 17,525 convictions where the underlying drug was reported that year, 5,943 -- or 34 percent -- entailed marijuana. Next was powder cocaine with 4,891 convictions representing 28 percent of the total where the drug was reported. Third -- with 2,902 convictions, 17 percent -- was crack cocaine. Methamphetamine was involved in 1,871 or 11 percent of the convictions, heroin in 1,351 or 8 per cent. (See table.)

There were variations in the illegal drugs targeted for by the major agencies. Marijuana was the primary focus of Customs, while cocaine was the primary focus of DEA and FBI. (See graph.) Powder cocaine, for example, made up 39 percent of FBI drug convictions in 1998, 30 percent of the DEA and 19 percent of Customs. Considering marijuana, it entailed 66 percent of Customs convictions, 26 percent of DEA and 14 percent of FBI. (See graph.)
Considering a longer time span, total federal expenditures for reducing the use of illegal drugs in the United States increased six times from 1981 through 1998. In constant dollars, annual expenditures came to slightly more than $16 billion in 1998 compared with $2.7 billion in 1981. (See discussion and graph.)

DEA: Referrals Less Than Half of All Federal Drug Matters

The Drug Enforcement Administration during the 1992/1998 period retained its position as the government's principal agency in the enforcement of the drug laws (graph). In 1998, for example, it was responsible for 18,945 referrals for prosecution in drug matters, slightly less than half of the 39,251 made by all federal agencies combined. The next two most active agencies were the Customs Service with 6,842 referrals and the FBI with 6,741. Trailing well behind in 1998 were the ATF with 653, INS with 422 and IRS with 327. (See table.)

Selected DEA performance indicators were mixed. The proportion of DEA referrals ultimately resulting in convictions went up to 81 percent in 1998 compared with 75 percent in 1992. Although referrals for prosecution were noticeably down in 1993, 1994, and 1996; they climbed to 18,945 in 1998, 5.7 percent higher than in 1992.(See table.) The trend in the average DEA sentence, however, was substantially down; 75 months in 1998, 94 months in 1992 (graph and table). Median drug sentences were also down, 57 months in 1998 from 60 months in 1992. The downward trends in DEA sentences were similar to those registered for all federal drug cases. Despite the decline, prison sentences resulting from DEA investigations remained higher than for federal offenses generally, as well as higher than those given in all non-DEA federal drug prosecutions.

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