‘It’s disturbing.’ U.S. Justice Department white-collar criminal prosecutions fall to their lowest level on record, study says

The U.S. Justice Department is prosecuting fewer white-collar criminals now than at any time since records back more than 30 years ago, a new report says. Federal prosecutions of white-collar criminals plunged in January to the lowest level on record, falling 25% from the levels reached just five years ago, says a study from Syracuse University.

The 5,702 white-collar prosecutions recorded last year are expected to fall to 5,175 this year, if current levels of prosecutions persist, the study added. Records go back to 1986 during the Reagan administration when there were 7,843 white-collar prosecutions.

Just 359 defendants were charged in January, compared to over 1,000 a month at the peaks in 2010 and 2011, according to the university’s TRAC Reports service, which monitors activity data at various federal agencies. Prosecutions hit a high after the financial crisis, and following the exposure of massive frauds, such as that of Bernie Madoff, which went undetected by the federal government for years.

If prosecutions continue at the same pace for the remainder of 2020, they are projected to fall to 5,175 — almost half the level of their Obama-era peak” in 2011, said the center in a statement. Prosecutions were down for individuals and for businesses, the center reported. Prosecutions against individuals typically make up 99% or more of all white-collar crime prosecutions.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice raised questions about the data. “TRAC uses its own methodologies in interpreting the data it receives, resulting in conclusions that we cannot verify,” said Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr in a statement.

“Data provided by TRAC routinely differs from data and statistics reflected in the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys’ published annual reports, DOJ’s main litigating division reports, U.S. Sentencing Commission data and U.S. Courts data,” he added.


‘It’s a matter of concern that federal prosecutions of white-collar fraud have declined so precipitously.’


— —David Sklansky, a professor of law at Stanford University

Carr pointed to a speech given by Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski last October in which he said that the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice charged 406 individuals in 2018, a 33% increase from the prior year, and convicted 40% more individuals at trial.

“We recovered more than $1 billion in corporate U.S. criminal fines, penalties, restitution and forfeiture, as part of resolutions that returned $3 billion globally,” Benczkowski said, “and I am pleased to say that we are on track to surpass these benchmarks in 2019.”

Others said they’re disappointed by the findings in TRAC’s report. “It’s disturbing,” said David Sklansky, a professor of law at Stanford University co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, and a former Assistant District Attorney. “It’s a matter of concern that federal prosecutions of white-collar fraud have declined so precipitously.”

Sklansky said that white-collar crime had traditionally been prosecuted by the federal government because the cases could be so complex. “When the U.S. Attorney’s offices file fewer of these cases, that slack is unlikely to be picked up by district attorneys or state prosecutors,” he said.

He added that prosecutions of white-collar crime had been falling for about a decade. “This isn’t just a Trump administration phenomenon,” he said.

Some criminologists attribute the drop in prosecutions to the fact that law-enforcement is looking elsewhere, particularly national security in the aftermath of 9/11, which can be of higher priority and require more complex and longer-term investigations.

“Investigative and prosecutorial resources have been diverted over the past 20 years to other kinds of cases: anti-terrorism cases, and more recently immigration cases,” Sklansky added.

The typical white-collar criminal is a 46-year-old male, and is sentenced to an average of three years of imprisonment, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Money Laundering Control. These criminals aren’t so much mathematical geniuses as petty crooks whose positions that gave them access to money.

Syracuse University management statistics professor Susan Long, co-director of the Center, said that the data came from all the U.S. Attorney’s offices around the country. “It’s essentially [from] data dumps from the international databases of each U.S. Attorney’s offices,” she said. Syracuse University has run the TRAC Center, to keep track of U.S. federal government department data, for over 30 years she said.

Professor Sklansky said, “TRAC is a very reputable organization. I think their tally of the statistics can be trusted.”

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