Federal prosecutions played a critical role in the great crime decline. Federal prosecutors have access to advanced resources and can pursue harsh sentences for violent gang leaders and drug traffickers. Unfortunately, the Department of Justice appears to have abandoned the mean streets of American cities. Federal criminal cases have greatly diminished in the past decade, similar to de-prosecution efforts at the local level.
Federal prosecutors represent the apex of the U.S. criminal-justice system. They can call upon outstanding agents at the FBI, DEA, ATF, and other federal agencies. Assistant United States Attorneys can use secret grand jury proceedings to gather information about violent criminals and organizations. Federal prosecutors enjoy nationwide jurisdiction to pursue criminal cases and can use tools like federal wiretaps to intercept communications between criminals. The federal sentencing guidelines, with enhanced sentences for criminal leaders and organizers, create a strong incentive for criminals to cooperate against each other; they also serve as a mechanism to incapacitate violent criminals for extended periods of time.
The United States granted these powers to the DOJ to defeat critical crime threats. In the 1970s and 1980s, federal prosecutors used them to reduce the mafia to a shell of its former violent self. In the 1990s and 2000s, the DOJ turned its attention to urban violence, combining President Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 with vigorous prosecution of the gang leaders and drug traffickers terrorizing American cities. The results were evident in programs like Operation Ceasefire in Boston and Project Exile in Richmond, which focused federal prosecution efforts on armed felons and drug traffickers, whose subsequent incarceration brought down crime rates. Those programs evolved into Project Safe Neighborhoods, a 2001 initiative in which the DOJ coordinated cooperative work between federal and local law enforcement to bring federal prosecutions against the worst-of-the-worst criminal offenders in cities across the United States. Even legendary criminal-defense lawyer Johnny Cochrane participated, telling potential criminals in a DOJ-sponsored commercial, “If you’ve got a prior felony conviction and you’re caught with a gun, not even I can get you off.”
Over the last decade, however, federal prosecutions have declined precipitously, as the chart below demonstrates:
In 2010, the DOJ filed approximately 84,000 federal criminal cases. By 2021, that number dipped to only 57,000, a decline of more than 30 percent. At the same time, the U.S. has seen an unprecedented surge in urban violence, with homicides increasing in 2020 at the highest rate in history—a nearly 30 percent rise that, coincidentally, matches the 30 percent decline in federal prosecutions.
What happened? Under President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, the DOJ began an intentional effort to reduce and weaken federal prosecutions. In 2010, Holder issued an anodyne memo announcing that the Justice Department would not be as aggressive with criminal prosecutions as it had been under President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft. By 2014, a new Holder memo made it clear that the DOJ was vastly reducing its efforts to prosecute drug traffickers and other criminals with stiff mandatory sentences. Holder said that such prosecutions “do not promote public safety” and that prosecutors needed to pay more attention to “the needs of the communities we serve” (which apparently did not include the neighborhoods terrorized by drug gangs).
The tenures of President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions were marked by political infighting and the distraction of the federal First Step Act, an effort to spend more time worrying about criminals than victims. Federal prosecutions continued to decline under the twin influences of the pandemic and the policy choices of President Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland, who appear to be more focused on headline-grabbing political cases than prosecuting bread-and-butter violent crimes. Why focus on thousands of murders in American cities when you can issue a directive threatening to prosecute, as domestic terrorists, parents attending local school board meetings to protest critical race theory in the curriculum?
Some few exceptions have emerged to the broader decline of federal prosecutions. When DOJ veteran William Barr was named attorney general in 2019, prosecutions briefly resumed an upward track. And even amid the chaos of the pandemic, certain DOJ outposts like the United States Attorney’s Office in Cleveland churned out a record number of indictments in an attempt to quell violent crime. But the general trend is clear: federal prosecutions have been disappearing from the landscape of urban crime.
The results are predictable. Criminals (and their lawyers) have always feared the feds showing up in a case, knowing that the investigation will be thorough, a conviction virtually assured, and punishment severe. The effective absence of federal prosecutors from the criminal-justice system has allowed criminals to overrun American cities. It’s time for the DOJ to re-engage in this core mission of protecting our urban centers. The law-abiding citizens of American cities deserve no less.
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