Federal white-collar prosecutions are down considerably

Watching prosecution trends is often somewhat like reading tea leaves. After all, it can be virtually impossible to turn overarching statistics into usable information that may be relevant for a specific situation. Still, recent data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University paints an interesting picture. 

For the first 11 months of FY2019, federal white-collar prosecutions dropped 8.5% from the same period the previous year. This continues a downward trend, marking the lowest level of white-collar prosecutions in a generation. In fact, there were just under 5,000 prosecutions for white-collar offenses, representing only 3.3% of the nearly 170,500 total prosecutions in U.S. district courts. 

Falling numbers 

In the 1970s and 1980s, federal white-collar prosecutions regularly surpassed 10,000 every year. That changed somewhat during the Clinton and George W. Bush years, when there were roughly 8,000 federal prosecutions. Never have white-collar prosecutions been as low as they are now. On the contrary, today’s prosecutions are about half of what they were just eight years ago. 

A possible shift in enforcement 

Federal white-collar prosecutions may stem from investigations by the FBI, IRS, Secret Service or other governmental agencies. Prosecutors most commonly bring criminal charges for television, radio and wire fraud. Bank and mail fraud also seem to be priorities for federal prosecutors, although nationwide charging rates for those offenses have fallen considerably. 

Other types of criminal prosecutions 

As with most statistics, it is possible to read the TRAC data in several different ways. One thing is clear, though. Federal court dockets are full of matters that have little or nothing to do with white-collar criminal activity. Rather, prosecutions for drug, immigration and property offenses are significantly more common in district courts. 

While federal white-collar criminal prosecutions are at a 33-year low, prosecutions for white-collar offenses still happen regularly. Nonetheless, monitoring the priorities of federal prosecutors may provide some insight into enforcement of white-collar laws.