Written by Peter Torncello 

Federal prosecutions of white-collar crime have fallen to a 20-year low, researchers at Syracuse University, analyzing Justice Department documents, have concluded.

Researchers found the federal government brought 5,173 white-collar crime cases in the first 9 months of 2015. This figure is down by approximately 4,000 cases from just a decade ago. The Justice Department records show an overall decline in white-collar prosecutions of more than 36 percent over the past 20 years. White-collar crimes are categorized as violations of health care, tax, securities, bankruptcy, antitrust, federal procurement, and various other laws.

The Syracuse University researchers also noted, “[T]he decline in federal white-collar crime prosecutions does not necessarily indicate there has been a decline in white-collar crime, rather, it may reflect shifting enforcement policies by each of the administrations and the various agencies, the changing availabilities of essential staff and congressionally mandated alterations in the laws.”

Many factors may contribute to this sharp decline in federal prosecutions. For instance, the Justice Department has undergone budgetary cutbacks in recent years and the division that oversees white-collar crime had a reduction in workforce of more than 15 percent, to 1,325 employees, compared to 1,566 employees in 2011. There also have been budgetary cuts for travel, overtime, and in fees for consultants. All of these are vital for conducting complex white-collar investigations.

This decline in white-collar prosecutions also may be the result of more attorneys and law firms that engage in proactive, preventive lawyering on behalf of those engaged in business activities which might be targeted for white-collar criminal investigations. Many prosecutions likely have been avoided altogether by early and effective attorney representation.

According to the Syracuse University report, “the leading investigative agency for white- collar crime prosecutions through June 2015 was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, accounting for 27 percent of prosecutions. [A]dditional agencies with substantial number of white-collar crime referrals were: the Internal Revenue Service in the Treasury Department (15 percent), the Secret Service in Homeland Security (13 percent), the US Postal Service (8 percent) and the Social Security Administration (5 percent).”

The researchers also point out that “the makeup of offenses being prosecuted has shifted over time. Twenty years ago, mail fraud under 18 USC 1341 was the most frequent lead charge. Ten years ago it was bank fraud under 18 USC 1344. Five years ago it was aggravated identity theft under 18 USC 1028A. Currently, fraud by wire, radio or television under 18 USC 1343 tops the list of lead charges.” The total projected fiscal year 2015 white-collar crime prosecutions is 12.3 percent lower than the previous year, down 29.1 percent from five years ago.

While this report contains valuable information on the type and number of crimes being targeted by the federal government, it is important to be mindful that state prosecutions of white collar crime are another story, and can present additional cause for concern.