06 January 2010

Are The DOJ Criminal Division's Priorities Wrong?

Federal criminal prosecutions are at record highs. The surge is surprising. After all, crime rates in the U.S. are at the lowest levels seen since the early 1960s.

Immigration offenses (overwhelmingly, unlawful re-entry near the U.S. Border) account for more than a quarter of all criminal and were up about 20% in a single year, despite the fact that the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has been falling as a result of the recession. The change appears to be a result of a new prosecution approach in five border districts that seeks criminal convictions rather than merely civil deportation in these cases. But, it isn't clear what benefit a low level criminal prosecution offers over a deportation in cases where an individual has unlawfully entered the United States.

Also, increasing are prosecutions for marijuana trafficing, while prosecutions for non-marijuana drug trafficing are down. This also seems out of touch. The public is increasingly favorable to outright legalization of marijuana, and California has seriously considered it as a revenue raising measure.

This isn't to say that all of criminal justice priorities of the Department of Justice are wrong. Few would fault the federal government for an increase in fraud prosecutions at a time when many massive financial frauds have been discovered in connection with the financial crisis.

It is hard to say what accounts for a rise in federal prosecutions for sex offenses. Certainly, prosecuting sex offenders is something most people would favor. But, why do so at the federal level, rather than at the state level? If this is a result of improved law enforcement in Indian country, where the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over serious crimes, then this is a good thing. But, one could imagine that this might simply represent a surge in pornography prosecutions, which wouldn't be a positive development. Indeed, federal judges are publicly expressing their dismay with the inappropriately harsh sentences that the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines call for in pornography cases.

Despite the myth that President Obama is out to take away guns, which has been enormously profitable for the gun industry, firearm related prosecutions are also down.

Still, one wonders if the criminal justice resources of the Justice Department couldn't be better directed.

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