updated 9/28/2005 8:12:30 PM ET 2005-09-29T00:12:30

Federal prosecutions have increased by nearly one-third since President Bush took office, fueled mainly by minor immigration cases along the Mexican border. Drug and white-collar crime prosecutions showed a small drop.

Prosecutions on weapons charges have increased, although they constitute a far smaller share of all federal cases than do drug and immigration violations, according to government records reviewed by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Terrorism cases make up less than 1 percent of all prosecutions and appear to have declined since peaking in 2002, said the study released Wednesday.

Justice Department officials have said repeatedly their goal is to stop terrorists long before they can act and that they will use lesser charges such as immigration violations and document fraud to take them off the streets.

Department officials did not immediately comment on the new study.

Overall, federal prosecutions rose from 88,755 in 2000 to 116,582 last year, the study said.

The number of immigration prosecutions more than doubled from 16,724 to 37,854 between 2000 and 2004, the study said. Most of that increase comes from the U.S. attorney’s office in Houston, which prosecuted 1,786 immigration cases in 2000 and 18,340 in 2004. Other federal prosecutors on the nation’s southern border, in Arizona and California, recorded much smaller jumps.

Prison time for immigration cases decreased
At the same time, the average prison sentence for people convicted of immigration violations in the Houston district dropped from nearly 3½ years to 11 months.

Michael Shelby, Houston’s former U.S. attorney, says south Texas’ numbers are misleading because misdemeanors — less serious charges — were not included in the data until 2004. Shelby said his office devoted more time to immigration cases after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

David Burnham, co-author of the TRAC study, said misdemeanors always have been part of the data.

James Alan Fox, criminal justice professor at Northeastern University, said the increase in immigration prosecutions could have a deterrent effect. “The good part of that strategy is that it could increase the perceived likelihood of government action, even though the severity of the penalty may be minimal,” Fox said.

Drug cases had been the most numerous in federal courts, until they were overtaken by immigration charges. Prosecutors brought 31,986 drug cases in 2000 and 30,988 last year.

White-collar cases, including corporate fraud, were stable from 2000 to 2003, then dropped by about 10 percent last year, the study said. The administration has touted its successes in corporate fraud scandals, beginning with the massive accounting fraud at Enron Corp.

But Fox said, “They may be going after some big fish, but there is a very large aquarium of goldfish swimming free.”

Weapons charges had been increasing during the Clinton administration, but they nearly doubled between 2000 and 2004, the study said.

A marked decline in the number of all cases referred by FBI agents to federal prosecutors illustrates the change in the government’s priorities since the Sept. 11 attacks. The FBI’s main focus changed from fighting crime to preventing terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. The bureau made just over 41,000 referrals in 2000 and about 9,500 fewer last year, the study said.

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