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Data Reveals Federal Prosecutors Are Focused on More Significant Drug Cases and Fewer Mandatory Minimums for Drug Defendants


March 21, 2016 - 1:58 PM


WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Justice Department today revealed new data from its innovative Smart on Crime Initiative that show charging decisions by federal prosecutors in fiscal year 2015 resulted in prosecutors' focusing on more serious drug cases and fewer indictments carrying a mandatory minimum.  Meanwhile, prosecutions of high-level drug defendants have risen and cooperation and plea rates remained effectively the same. 

“The promise of Smart on Crime is showing impressive results,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates.  “Federal prosecutors are consistently using their discretion to focus our federal resources on the most serious cases and to ensure that we reserve harsh mandatory minimum sentence for the most dangerous offenders.  By ensuring fair and proportional sentencing, these policies engender greater trust in our criminal justice system, save federal resources and make our communities more safe. "

As part of the department’s Smart on Crime Initiative – announced in August 2013 – federal prosecutors were instructed to ensure the department’s finite resources are devoted to the most important law enforcement priorities implicating substantial federal interests and to promote fair enforcement of our laws, especially for low-level, non-violent drug offenders.

Since that announcement, prosecutions of serious drug defendants – such as those involving a weapon or leaders of a conspiracy – have increased, and there has been virtually no change in the rates at which defendants cooperate with the government or plead guilty.  During the same time, the department has seen steady reductions in charges that trigger mandatory minimums and fewer federal drug charges for low-level, non-violent offenders.

The FY2015 data, provided by the Sentencing Commission, shows: 

  • Federal prosecutors are being more selective in their drug prosecutions.  Even though drug cases are fewer in number, they are more focused on the most serious defendants.  There was a 14 percent drop in drug cases brought between FY2012 and FY2014 and an additional 6 percent drop from FY2014 to FY2015, showing a steady downward trend that resulted in nearly 5,000 fewer drug cases between FY2012 and FY2015. 
  • At the same time, the percentage of those drug defendants with a weapon rose (from 15.1 percent of cases in FY2012 to 16.4 percent of cases in FY2014 and then to 17.3 percent of cases in FY2015).  Similarly, the percentage of defendants with an aggravating role steadily increased (from 6.6 percent in FY2012 to 7.1 percent in 2014 and 7.8 percent in 2015).
  • ​Just as prosecutors are focusing on the most serious defendants, they are moving away from low-level offenders and letting state prosecutors take those cases, if they so choose.  That fact is clear because prosecutors are charging defendants who qualify for safety valve (by definition, lower-level defendants) less frequently – from 37 percent of cases in 2011 to 32 percent in 2015.
  • Federal prosecutors are charging mandatory minimums significantly less frequently.  In FY 2012, 38.5 percent of all drug cases had no mandatory minimum, whereas post-Smart on Crime, that number rose to 48.7 percent in FY2014 – the first full year that Smart on Crime was implemented – and then up again to 53.1 percent in FY2015 – meaning less than half of all drug cases involved charges carrying a mandatory minimum.
  • ​Finally, drug defendants are still cooperating with the government to make cases against others.  The percentage of motions denoting substantial assistance, or cooperation, from defendants filed in drug cases have remained the same over time.  They were filed in 23.1 percent of drug cases in FY2012 and in 23.9 percent of drug cases in FY2015.  Guilty plea rates have stayed at roughly 97 percent consistently.
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