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Drug Prosecutions Drop To Historic Lows Under Trump
Despite widespread concern about an epidemic of opioid abuse, and announcements by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others of stepped of efforts by his department and the Trump administration to address it, federal criminal prosecutions for drug offenses have dropped to historic lows.
"This epidemic of opioid abuse is a crisis," Sessions said in remarks at an opioid summit in May. "It's ravaging our communities, bringing crime and violence to our streets and destroying the lives of so many Americans." While acknowledging prevention is ultimately the key, Sessions said that "criminal enforcement is crucial."
The latest data from the Justice Department, current through June 2017, show that fewer drug offenders were federally prosecuted over the past 12 months than at any time during the last quarter century. According to the case-by-case records analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, during the first five months of the Trump administration (February - June 2017), there were only 8,814 drug offenders federally prosecuted. This represents a drop of 9.0 percent as compared with the 9,687 federal criminal cases prosecuted during February - June 2016.
Table 1. Criminal Narotics/Drugs
During the month of June 2017, only 1,578 new prosecutions for drug crimes were brought - down 16.1 percent from the number in May. And prosecutions over the past year are even lower than they were five years ago. Overall, the data show that drug prosecutions in U.S. district courts are down 27.6 percent from levels reported in 2012. See Table 1.
The decrease from the levels five years ago in narcotics/drugs prosecutions for these matters is shown more clearly in Figure 1. The vertical bars in Figure 1 represent the number of narcotics/drugs prosecutions of this type recorded on a month-to-month basis. Where a prosecution was initially filed in U.S. Magistrate Court and then transferred to the U.S. District Court, the magistrate filing date was used since this provides an earlier indicator of actual trends. The superimposed line on the bars plots the six- month moving average so that natural fluctuations are smoothed out. The five-year rates of change in Table 1 are based upon this six-month moving average.
Figure 1. Monthly Trends in Narcotics/Drugs Prosecutions
The comparisons of the number of defendants charged with narcotics/drugs-related offenses are based on case-by-case information obtained by TRAC under the Freedom of Information Act from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys.
Lead Investigative Agencies for Drug Crimes
So far during the first nine months of FY 2017, about 1 in 5 cases (21.8%) were the result of organized crime task force efforts. An additional three out of four (75.8%) fell under drug trafficking programs, while simple drug possession was the nature of the offense in the remaining 2.5 percent of cases.
The lead investigative agency for the largest number of prosecutions so far during FY 2017 was the Drug Enforcement Administration. It was the lead investigative agency in nearly four out every ten (38.9%) federal criminal prosecutions filed.
Additional agencies with substantial numbers of narcotics/drugs referrals that were prosecuted in FY 2017 were: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (19.3%), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (13.3%), Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (6.0%), and Customs and Border Protection (5.9%). Referrals from state and local law enforcement agencies accounted for another 4.5 percent.
Top Ranked Lead Charge
Table 2 shows the top lead charges recorded in the prosecutions of narcotics/drugs matters filed in federal district courts during the first nine months of FY 2017.
Table 2: Top charges filed
Among the top ten lead charges, the one showing the sharpest projected decline in prosecutions compared to one year ago-down 16 percent-was "Attempt and conspiracy " (Title 21 U.S.C Section 963). Its frequency of use has fallen by 35 percent when compared with five years ago.
Top Ranked Judicial Districts
During FY 2016 the Justice Department said the government obtained 68.9 narcotics/drugs prosecutions for every one million people in the United States. If pace during the first nine months of FY 2017 continues at the same rate, narcotics/drugs prosecutions for one million people in the United States this year will be 65.3 . Understandably, there is great variation in the per capita number of narcotics/drugs prosecutions in each of the nation's ninety-four federal judicial districts.
Table 3: Top 10 districts (per one million people)
Compared to 10 years ago, South Dakota, Southern District of West Virginia (Charleston) and Vermont now ranked in the top 10 did not appear in the top ten.
The federal judicial district which showed the greatest projected growth in the rate of narcotics/drugs prosecutions compared to one year ago—94.1 percent—was Northern District of West Virginia (Wheeling). Compared to five years ago, the district with the largest projected growth—242 percent—was Wyoming .
In the last year, the judicial District Court recording the largest projected drop in the rate of narcotics/drugs prosecutions—30.0 percent—was New Mexico.
TRAC offers free monthly reports on program categories such as white collar crime, immigration, drugs, weapons and terrorism and on selected government agencies such as the IRS, FBI, ATF and DHS. For the latest information on prosecutions and convictions, go to http://trac.syr.edu/tracreports/bulletins/. In addition, subscribers to the TRACFed data service can generate custom reports for a specific agency, judicial district, program category, lead charge or judge via the TRAC Data Interpreter.