Federal Criminal Prosecutions Sharply Lower in December

The latest available data from the Justice Department show that during December 2018 the government reported 13,569 new prosecutions. According to the case- by-case information analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, this number is down 17.8 percent compared with the previous month. The largest drop - down 22.3 percent - were in immigration prosecutions. Drug prosecutions fell by 16.6 percent. Prosecutions for other types of offenses showed little change from the previous month's levels.

Figure 1. Federal Criminal Prosecutions by Offense, December 2016 - December 2018
(Click for larger image)

Immigration Prosecution Trends

November immigration prosecutions, however, were unusually high as a result of the recent surge in these cases. This surge was in response to this administration's call for a zero-tolerance policy prosecuting immigrants illegally entering along the southwest border[1]. Even with the drop in December, immigration prosecutions still remain above the levels of last April after the surge began. See Figure 1.

Table 1. Change in Federal Immigration Prosecutions
  Immigration Prosecutions
  Nov-18 Dec-18 Change
U.S. 11,390 8,848 -2,542
Texas, S 5,338 4,200 -1,138
Texas, W 1,880 1,245 -635
Arizona 1,987 1,625 -362
Cal, S 982 768 -214
N Mexico 673 485 -188
Rest of U.S. 530 525 -5

Further, even with this drop, total immigration prosecutions in December still accounted for almost two out of every three (65%) criminal prosecutions. In November they made up 69 percent.

During December, each of the five federal judicial districts along the southwest border experienced a drop in immigration prosecutions. In contrast, immigration prosecutions outside the southwest border showed little change. See Table 1. For example, the Southern District of Texas (Houston) saw immigration prosecutions fall from 5,338 during November to only 4,200 in December. The second largest drop was in the Western District of Texas (San Antonio) where such prosecutions fell from 1,880 to 1,245.

Drug Prosecution Trends

The drop in the number of drug prosecutions in December follows quite a different pattern. Nationally December's decline continues a longer term trend that TRAC previously documented was occurring. However, as shown in Table 2, the lion's share of the decline occurred outside the five southwest border districts. And in the border districts, only the southern and western districts in Texas registered much of a decline.

Table 2. Change in Federal Drug Prosecutions
  Drug Prosecutions
  Nov-18 Dec-18 Change
U.S. 1,537 1,282 -255
Texas, S 132 90 -42
Texas, W 97 66 -31
N Mexico 19 13 -6
Arizona 53 56 3
Cal, S 102 107 5
Rest of U.S. 1,134 950 -184

The comparisons of the number of defendants charged are based on case-by-case information obtained by TRAC under the Freedom of Information Act from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys.


[1] See TRAC Report, "Criminal Prosecutions for Illegal Border Crossers Jump Sharply in April"; July TRAC Report, "Zero Tolerance' at the Border: Rhetoric vs. Reality"; August 2018 TRAC Report, "Stepped Up Illegal-Entry Prosecutions Reduce Those for Other Crimes"; and TRAC Report covering trends through October, "Federal Prosecution Levels Remain at Historic Highs."

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.