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, reports the Pew Research Center. The decline comes as Attorney General Jeff Sessions has indicated that the Justice Department will reverse the trend and ramp up prosecutions in the coming years. Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against 77,152 defendants in fiscal 2016, says the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. That’s a decline of 25 percent since fiscal 2011 and marks the lowest yearly total since 1997.
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. Prosecutions for other, less frequently charged crime types have increased slightly. For example, prosecutors charged 8,576 defendants with gun crimes in 2016, a 3 percent increase over 2011 (and a 9 percent single-year increase over 2015). They charged 2,897 people with violent crimes such as murder, robbery and assault, a 4 percent increase from five years earlier. In 2013, then-Attorney General Eric Holder told federal prosecutors to ensure that each case they bring “serves a substantial federal interest.” He said prosecutors “cannot – and should not – bring every case or charge every defendant who stands accused of violating federal law.”