Justice Department shifts under Bush

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department under the Bush administration has retreated from prosecutions of mobsters, white-collar criminals, environmental crimes and traditional civil rights infractions, new department data show.

As part of a series of policy shifts that have greatly transformed the administration of federal justice, the department has strongly emphasized immigration and terrorism-related investigations. It has also devoted new attention to areas important to conservative activists, such as sex trafficking and obscenity, according to the department’s own performance and budget numbers.

Such dramatic changes form a backdrop as the Senate Judiciary Committee considers today the nomination of former federal judge Michael Mukasey to be President Bush’s third attorney general.

From 2000 to 2006, for example, there were large drops in the number of defendants related to environmental offenses (down 12 percent), organized crime (38 percent), white-collar crime (10 percent), bank robbery (18 percent) and bankruptcy fraud (46 percent), according to Justice Department statistics provided this week to the Washington Post. Money-laundering prosecutions related to drugs were also down nearly 25 percent, while the number of drug cases overall was stagnant.

There were simultaneous jumps in prosecutions related to immigration (up 36 percent), weapons cases (87 percent), official corruption (15 percent) and, most dramatically, terrorism and national security cases (876 percent). Indeed, Justice Department funds devoted to counterterrorism programs in Washington have tripled since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Department officials say the surge in resources for national security and terrorism probes, in particular, reflects the intense administration efforts to prevent another attack. However, the number of terrorism-related defendants has been relatively small: Prosecutions peaked at 818 in 2003 and fell to 635 by 2006, and most of these were not for terrorist acts or plans.

The result is a department far less focused on the mob bosses, drug kingpins and bank robbers who have dominated much of its history, even as new FBI studies show a substantial rise in murders and other violent crimes over the past two years. The change has been so marked that, in a speech to a police group this week, FBI Director Robert Mueller signaled a desire to reinvigorate the department’s emphasis on traditional crime-fighting.

“We are realizing that national security is as much about reducing the number of homicides on our streets as it is about reducing the threat of terrorism,” Mueller said Monday in New Orleans at a convention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “Today, in pockets around the country, we are seeing the first steady increase in street-level crime since 1993. As a result, we must view criminal threats differently than we did in the immediate aftermath of September 11.”

Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said some categories of crime have been key priorities of the Bush administration, including terrorism, illegal gun possession and child exploitation. He also noted that overall prosecutions for all crimes are at an all-time high.

“Clearly, since September 11, the administration’s top priority has been counterterrorism,” Carr said. “That’s reflected in the creation of the National Security Division and the vast resources we’ve devoted to investigating and prosecuting terrorism cases. … The department’s commitment to all areas of federal prosecution is shown through the president’s funding requests to Congress, which have shown steady increases for all department divisions over the past six years.”

Several favorite conservative causes saw marked increases in prosecutions during the first six years of the Bush administration. The number of defendants prosecuted for child pornography offenses nearly tripled, from 594 in President Bill Clinton’s last year in office to 1,549 in fiscal 2006. Likewise, obscenity prosecutions more than tripled, from eight defendants in 2000 to 26 last year.

While traditional civil rights cases fell, the number of defendants prosecuted for human trafficking-related crimes rose from just two in 2000 to 65 six years later.

Perhaps most strikingly, the department’s statistics show that Justice is now in large part an immigration enforcement agency: More than 19,000 defendants were charged with immigration violations in federal district courts in 2006, surpassing every other category except drug crimes.

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