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Federal prosecution of white-collar crimes is at a 20-year low

Syracuse University researchers shared a surprising fact recently — the federal prosecution of white-collar crimes is at a 20-year low in 2015, down by nearly 4,000 annual cases when compared with 1995 (h/t Christopher Ingraham):

Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC): "The long term downward trend in the prosecutions of these matters going back to FY 1995 is more clearly shown in Figure 1. The vertical bars in Figure 1 represent the number of white collar crime prosecutions recorded each fiscal year. Projected figures for the current fiscal year are shown. Each presidential administration is distinguished by the color of the bars."

How to define "white-collar crime"

The US Department of Justice Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) uses the following guidelines — and as Syracuse University researchers note in their latest TRAC report, the changing roles of local, state, and federal agencies might account for part of the drop in total federal prosecutions:

White collar crimes — as defined by the EOUSA — involve a wide range of activities including the violation of health care, tax, securities, bankruptcy, antitrust, federal procurement and other laws. Because such enforcement by state and local agencies for these crimes sometimes is erratic or nonexistent, the declining role of the federal government could be of great significance.

The long list of the crimes included in the definition of white-collar crime includes such a wide range of activities that multiple federal agencies are involved. The below (poorly colored) pie chart shows that going after white-collar crime isn't a challenge of any single agency:

The FBI accounted for 27.8 percent of prosecutions; IRS/Dept. of Treasury 15.8%; Secret Service 13.1%, USPS 8.3%; SSA 5.3%. The "other" category includes HHS (4.9%), ICE (3.5%), Customs (3.0%), and other Homeland Security branches (2.4%).

9/11 seems to have driven a decline in federal prosecutions

As mentioned earlier, it's possible that the drop in white-collar prosecution is partly a matter of recording which local, state, and federal entities prosecute white-collar crime.

A significant portion of the total decline is seen in the records of the biggest single federal agency to prosecute these offenses — the FBI. As TRAC reported in 2013, the FBI's prosecutions alone dropped from nearly 5,000 in 1993 to 3,000 by 2013, accounting for a large portion of the total decline in white-collar prosecutions recorded thus far in 2015.


A dramatic downward trend begins, as shown above, in 2002 and likely relates to the rising salience of terrorism as an FBI mission. As TRAC stated, based on its research in 2013, "The 9/11 attacks of 2001 prompted the agency [FBI] to focus more and more of its investigative powers on trying to deal with international and domestic terrorism and weapons of mass destruction."