New prosecutions drop after Sept. 11 attacks

Saturday, December 1, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Federal agents recommended 76 percent fewer criminal cases for prosecution in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, a computer analysis of Justice Department records shows, in a sign of one cost of the war on terrorism.

The sudden shift of thousands of federal agents to the terrorism investigation came at the expense of traditional crimefighting against drugs, bank robberies, illegal immigration and white collar crime, the analysis conducted for The Associated Press showed.

For instance, the FBI recommended 263 criminal cases to U.S. attorneys for prosecution between Sept. 12 and Sept. 30, compared with more than 1,400 referrals in the same period in each of the past two years.

The declines were anticipated. "We cannot do everything we once did because lives now depend on us doing a few things very well," Attorney General John Ashcroft said this month.

The challenge of the next few months is to clear prosecutorial backlogs and shift non-terrorism investigations from the FBI.

"One example would be bank robbery cases," said Robert J. Govar, senior litigation counsel in the U.S. attorney's office in eastern Arkansas. "Many of those will have to be referred to state and local authorities for prosecution."

Some 'just go away'

In the interim, some of the criminal matters that have fallen through the cracks may never get to court, one former federal prosecutor said.

"A lot of cases once they sink to the bottom of the pile, they never come back to the top," said Robert Litt, a former Justice Department official during the Clinton administration. "A lot of cases just go away."

Outgoing U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, whose New York district has been a major focus of the terrorism investigation, acknowledged the drain of resources.

"Not to the exclusion of everything else, but to the extent that there were resources to spare, the diversion was extensive," she said.

Investigators working regular cases across the country were reassigned to pursue terrorism leads or provide protection for federal facilities or other potential targets. Some prosecutors said court cases had to be postponed because FBI agents who developed the cases weren't available to testify.

School obtains data

The new Justice Department data was obtained by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse program and analyzed for the AP.

The records are the latest figures for federal prosecutions available from the government and were obtained after a two-year Freedom of Information Act legal battle by the university. Justice officials say they don't have figures for October or November yet.

The records show that in the first 19 days after the attacks on New York and Washington, the number of criminal cases recommended for prosecution by all federal investigative agencies fell to 1,057 from 4,446 over the same period in 2000. Both figures include all referrals entered into the computer system by Sept. 30 -- some cases typically are added to the database afterward, officials say.

Referrals are recommendations by investigators that people be prosecuted for specific crimes. Prosecutors review those recommendations and decide which ones deserve to be brought before a grand jury and which should be scrapped.

The number of new prosecutions -- cases actually brought into court by U.S. attorneys -- in the final 19 days of September was down by 20 percent from last year and by nearly a third from 1999.

"If it continues ... obviously it's a concern," said Carole DiBattiste, who headed the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys during the Clinton administration.

"There are only so many resources and those resources right now have to be directed to terrorism," she said. "There's no question the Justice Department is doing the right thing after Sept. 11. But then the question is how do you go back and address the other crimes that are out there."

Congress satisfied

Members of Congress are satisfied with the effort so far. "One month isn't sufficient time to establish a trend," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Crime Subcommittee

Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., another member of the crime subcommittee, said he would be concerned if the September trend continued into the new year. But for the moment, he said, "I'd cut them some slack."

Barr said that if the backlog of non-terrorism cases grows too large, prosecutors may be forced to drop some.

"You can't do that with very many of them," said Barr, who was a federal prosecutor before being elected to Congress. "Most of them will have to be handled. That's going to be the major problem. You can't just hold these things off forever and then open the floodgates."

The dramatic reduction in new criminal investigations and prosecutions happened across the board. In the last 19 days of September:

The number of drug crimes recommended for prosecution dropped 76 percent from the same period last year.

The number of white collar crimes recommended to U.S. attorneys declined 79 percent.

Immigration criminal referrals fell 84 percent.

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