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Fewer Federal Drug Prosecutions, More Convictions Under Clinton Administration


December 1996

According to statistics released on October 19, the Clinton Administration has prosecuted slightly fewer federal drug cases on average than the Bush Administration, but has averaged more convictions (Christopher S. Wren, "Study Finds Little Change in Federal Prosecution of Drug Cases," New York Times, October 20, 1996, p. A19; Michael J. Sniffen, "Clinton's term brings fewer cases, more convictions on illicit substances," Buffalo News, October 20, 1996, p. A3; Angie Cannon, "Study Says Federal Drug Prosecutions Vary," Salt Lake Tribune, October 20, 1996, p. ). Information used in the TRAC study is available at

David Burnham and Susan Long, co-directors of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, analyzed drug prosecutions in 90 Federal judicial districts across the U.S. using records kept by the Justice Department and the federal court system. Their analysis shows that the number of defendants in federal drug cases more than doubled from 8,775 in 1981 to 19,038 in 1988 during the Reagan Administration. Federal drug prosecutions continued to increase under President Bush, reaching a high of 28,585 defendants in the 1992 election year and averaging 25,990 defendants a year. Federal drug defendants averaged 25,672 in the first three years of the Clinton Administration. The Clinton administration averaged 17,767 convictions per year from 1993 to 1995 compared to 16,714 convictions per year under President Bush.

Justice Department spokesman Gregory King said the comparisons ignore the fact that the current administration has prosecuted larger and more complex drug cases. "That shows up in the increased number of court-approved wiretaps," King said.

The analysis supports criticism of federal anti-drug efforts as unorganized and too spread out among different agencies. "Internal administrative data from the Justice Department indicate that the criminal enforcement of Federal drug laws around the country is an erratic and unplanned hodgepodge," wrote David Burnham. The statistics show that some lightly populated rural areas had more federal drug prosecutions per resident than some major cities. The lowest rates of prosecution per resident were in federal districts that include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Newark (NJ), and Chicago. The highest rates were in districts covering West Virginia, northern Mississippi and western North Carolina.

Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation told the Knight-Ridder news service that an important issue is whether drug prosecutions are disproportionately high compared to other criminal prosecutions. "Is the prosecutor saying, 'I'm not going to do other areas of federal prosecutions, such as toxic-waste dumping or security fraud?'" asked Sterling.

Drug cases investigated by the DEA resulted in higher prosecution and conviction rates, and longer prison terms, than those investigated by the FBI and the ATF. Federal prosecutors agreed to prosecute 78% of the defendants referred by the DEA, compared with 53% referred by other investigative agencies. Prosecutors won convictions in 55% of the DEA referred cases, compared to convictions in 37% of non-DEA cases. Half of the convicted DEA defendants received sentences of at least 57 months, while the median sentence for non-DEA defendants was 18 months.