05 September 2006

Colorado: Terrorism Cold Spot

From October 1, 2006, the first month following the 9-11 terrorist attack, until May 31, 2006, there have been 579 "international terrorism" prosecutions which have produced 314 "international terrorism" convictions in the United States according to Justice Department data processed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a government watchdog organization based at Syracuse University in New York State.

Colorado's share of these prosecutions has been small. The state has seen 4 "international terrorism" prosecutions and 2 "international terrorism" convictions since 9-11. The sentences for these convictions were modest, averaging 4.3 months each, indicating that both were merely misdemeanor convictions, classified as "international terrorism" cases more out of hysteria than due to any real international terrorist connection to these crimes. There have been no other "international terrorism" convictions anywhere else in the Rocky Mountain West since 9-11.

Cold Spots

While Colorado is no hot spot when it comes to terrorism cases, it has not been terrorism prosecution and conviction free. Colorado's two misdemeanor convictions were the only "international terrorism" convictions in the entire Mountain West region since 9-11.

Oklahoma is the only state bordering Colorado that produced any "international terrorism" convictions (2). The only Oklahoma conviction for which data is available was a conviction producing a 12 month sentence, suggesting that it also was hardly of the seriousness one normally associates with a common sense definition of "international terrorism" crimes.

The states and territories with the distinction of having no terrorism prosecutions or convictions since 9-11 include Alabama, Delaware, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, New Mexico, Nebraska, North Dakota, the Northern Mariana Islands, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, the Virgin Islands, and Wyoming.

Several more states have had prosecutions, but not convictions in terrorism cases, they include Arizona, Idaho, Minnesota, Nevada, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

Hot Spots

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, which covers Washington D.C. surburbs has had the largest share of "international terrorism" prosecutions and convictions, with 194 prosecutions producing 123 convictions.  Many of these prosecutions are a dubious fit for the charge claimed by the Justice Department. The median sentence for those convicted of "international terrorism" in this district was 1 month, something unfathomable considering that the Eastern District of Virginia is one of the most conservative judicial districts in the nation, if the prosecutions fit any common sense definition of international terrorism.

The Western District of North Carolina based in Charlotte came in second place with 64 prosecutions producing 49 convictions. The reason for this is unclear. It appears to be largely a result of overzealous terrorism classifications. A majority of those convicted received no incarceration as part of their sentences.

The Southern District of Florida, home to Miami, Florida and the current Jose Padilla prosecution, is the third biggest hot spot, measured by prosecutions, with 20 prosecutions and 20 convictions. Meaningful sentencing data is not available.

The Northern District of Illinois, which includes Chicago, produced 12 prosecutions and 10 convictions. Meaningful sentencing data is not available.

These four judicial districts, out of 94 in the United States, produced a little more than two-thirds of terrorism prosecutions, according to the Justice Department, and almost two-thirds of the terrorism convictions in the United States since 9-11.

Chicken Little Prosecutions?

New Jersey apparently wins the chicken little award with 54 terrorism prosecutions, but only 1 conviction (producing a 804 month sentence). The District of Columbia with 38 prosecutions and 3 convictions, is close behind.

In fairness, some of these prosecutions may have been abandoned in favor of deportations in some cases, or could involve cases where prosecutions are still pending because the cases were brought recently.

Enemy Combatant Policy Impact

None of the statistics relied upon in the TRAC study have been seriously skewed by the Bush Administration "enemy combatant" policy, which seeks to detain terrorism suspects indefinitely in military facilities outside the criminal justice system.

Only two such detentions are publicly known to have taken place as a result of detentions in the United States, both in Illinois.

One of those two detention, the Jose Padilla case, was ultimately converted into a criminal prosecution in Miami, Florida on terrorism related charges (some of which have since been dismissed).

The other, the Al-Marri case, was originally prosecuted in the criminal justice system as a terrorism related fraud case before Mr. Al-Marri was turned over to the military.

Thus, both enemy combatant cases are reflected in the terrorism prosecution statistics above and involve states where federal prosecutions have shown a penchant for classifying cases as terrorism related.


"International terrorism" is in the eye of the beholder.  The post-9-11 definition of terrorism is far broader than it was before 9-11.

The classification of cases as international terrorist related is made by the United States Department of Justice, which currently reports to President Bush.

Prosecutions are included in the statistics cited above if they were commenced in the time period in question, regardless of when the acts prosecuted took place. Convictions are included if they took place in the time period included, and thus, it is possible for a conviction to be included even though the related prosectution is not, if the prosecution was commenced prior to October 1, 2006.

The Justice Department's standards for classifying cases as terrorism related have clearly been relaxed after 9-11, however (empahsis added below).

For all those convicted as a result of cases initiated in the two years after 9/11, for example, the median sentence -- half got more and half got less-- was 28 days. For those referrals that came in more recently -- through May 31, 2006 -- the median sentence was 20 days. For cases started in the two year period before the 9/11 attack, the typical sentence was much longer, 41 months.

The number of serious "international terrorism" cases has been small:

Only 14 . . . received a substantial sentence -- 20 years or more.

Only 67 . . . received sentences of five or more years.

Two-thirds of cases officially classified as "international terrorism" cases were prosecuted as fraud cases. One even involved a chop shop where stolen cars are broken up for fencing as car parts. Fail to file a tax return and social security fraud were also listed as "international terrorism" cases. A large share of all "international terrorism" cases resulting in convictions were misdemeanors or resulted in a sentence limited to probation.

In fact, the surge in prosecutions and convictions classified by the Justice Department in the wake of 9-11 as "international terrorism" cases is almost entirely a result of lax classification probably driven by hysteria as much as anything. In reality, serious international terrorism cases have been neither more common nor less common in the wake of 9-11 than they were in the years before 9-11.

There have been only about 12 serious "international terrorism" case convictions a year since 9-11. From 1996-2000, the average was 14 about cases a year, and almost all were serious cases. The difference is not statistically significant given the wide variation in the number of cases from year to year.

Cross Posted at Colorado Confidential.

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