After peaking in 2011, the number of federal criminal prosecutions has declined for five consecutive years and is now at its lowest level in nearly two decades, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of new data from the federal court system. The decline comes as Attorney General Jeff Sessions has indicated that the Justice Department will reverse the trend and ramp up criminal prosecutions in the years ahead.
Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against 77,152 defendants in fiscal year 2016, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. That’s a decline of 25% since fiscal 2011, when 102,617 defendants were charged, and marks the lowest yearly total since 1997. The data count all defendants charged in U.S. district courts with felonies and serious misdemeanors, as well as some defendants charged with petty offenses. They exclude defendants whose cases were handled by magistrate judges.
Prosecutions for drug, immigration and property offenses – the three most common categories of crime charged by the federal government – all have declined over the past five years. The Justice Department filed drug charges against 24,638 defendants in 2016, down 23% from 2011. It filed immigration charges against 20,762 defendants, down 26%. And it charged 10,712 people with property offenses such as fraud and embezzlement, a 39% decline.