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Study finds drop in civil rights law enforcement

Federal enforcement of civil rights laws has dropped sharply since 1999 even though the number of complaints received by the Justice Department has stayed relatively constant, according to a study released Sunday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Federal enforcement of civil rights laws has dropped sharply since 1999 even though the level of complaints received by the Justice Department has remained relatively constant, according a study released Sunday.

Criminal charges alleging civil rights violations were brought last year against 84 defendants, down from 159 in 1999, according to Justice Department data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

In addition, the study found that the number of times the FBI or other federal investigative agency recommended prosecution in civil rights cases has fallen by more than one-third, from over 3,000 in 1999 to just over 1,900 last year. Federal court data also show the government has sought fewer civil sanctions against civil rights violators.

The study’s co-author, David Burnham of TRAC, said the results show that civil rights enforcement dropped across-the-board during President Bush’s first term in office. The Justice Department enforces a wide range of civil rights laws ranging from guaranteeing fair housing access to prosecuting hate crimes.

Trend called ‘significant’
“Collectively, some violators of the civil rights laws are not being dealt with by the government,” Burnham said. “They’ve declined by a huge number of cases. This trend, we think, is significant.”

It’s unlikely that the decline has occurred because fewer civil rights violations are occurring, the study suggests. The number of complaints about possible violations received by the Justice Department has remained level at about 12,000 annually for each of the past five years.

The Justice Department had no comment about the study.

When he announced his resignation Nov. 9, Attorney General John Ashcroft listed as one of the department’s accomplishments a statistic that showed the number of civil rights prosecutions was slightly higher over the past three years than the previous three-year period. He also said the Justice Department has tripled the number of defendants charged in human trafficking cases compared with the previous three years.

The TRAC report gives no conclusive reasons for the reduction in civil rights enforcement but speculates that it could have resulted from federal prosecutors and investigators having spent far more time than in previous years on terrorism cases in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Prosecution drops, overall caseload grows
Civil rights cases made up a tiny fraction of the Justice Department’s total of 99,341 criminal prosecutions in 2003. The study found, however, that only civil rights and environmental prosecutions were down from 1999 to 2003 as the total caseload rose by about 10 percent.

By far the biggest criminal prosecution category is illegal drugs, at about 33,100 cases last year, followed by immigration, weapons violations, white-collar crime and others. Of the 84 civil rights cases brought in 2003, almost half involved allegations of violations by police officers, with 17 involving racial violence and nine others some form of slavery or involuntary servitude.

The study was based on data collected from the Justice Department, federal courts and congressional budget documents. It was funded in part by the Carnegie Corp., the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.