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June 25, 2018

Can we predict how federal immigration crackdowns will impact the modern drug war?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this USA Today piece headlined "DOJ: Trump's immigration crackdown 'diverting' resources from drug cases." Here are excerpts:

Federal prosecutors warned they were diverting resources from drug-smuggling cases in southern California to handle the flood of immigration charges brought on by the Trump administration’s border crackdown, records obtained by USA TODAY show.

Days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed prosecutors to bring charges against anyone who enters the United States illegally, a Justice Department supervisor in San Diego sent an email to border authorities warning that immigration cases “will occupy substantially more of our resources.”  He wrote that the U.S. Attorney’s Office there was “diverting staff, both support and attorneys, accordingly.”...

Sessions last month ordered federal prosecutors along the southwest border to bring criminal charges against every adult caught entering the United States illegally, a “zero tolerance” push meant to deter migrants. Those cases typically are seldom more than symbolic — most of the people who are charged are sentenced to no additional jail time and a $10 fee — but they have served as the legal basis for separating thousands of children from their parents at the border.

The border crackdown has produced a high-speed assembly line of minor cases in federal courts from California to Texas, more than doubling the caseloads there.  This month alone, USA TODAY identified more than 4,100 migrants who were charged with minor crimes after crossing into the United States from Mexico.

Kelly Thornton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said in a statement that the Justice Department “has given our district the necessary resources -- including 10 additional prosecutor positions plus at least five Department of Defense attorneys -- to prosecute all of these crimes.”  She said the number of smuggling cases prosecuted there is on track to go up this year.  Still, there are signs that border authorities are seeking to prosecute drug smugglers in state courts instead, even though the possible sentences typically are harsher in the federal system.

The District Attorney’s office in San Diego said Friday that the number of cases submitted to them by border authorities had more than doubled since the administration started its border crackdown.  Spokeswoman Tanya Sierra said Homeland Security agents referred 96 drug cases to the office between May 21 and June 21, compared to 47 over the same period last year.  Most of the cases involved more than a kilogram of drugs, Sierra said.

Meanwhile, the number of people charged in federal court has dropped since the start of the administration’s zero-tolerance push, said Reuben Cahn, the chief federal public defender in San Diego....

USA TODAY examined 2,598 written judgments in border-crossing cases filed in federal courts along the border since mid-May.  In nearly 70 percent of those cases, migrants pleaded guilty and immediately received a sentence of time served, meaning they would spend no additional time in jail.  Another 13 percent were sentenced to unsupervised probation, including a condition that they not illegally re-enter the United States.  In both cases, that meant they would immediately be returned to immigration officials to be processed for deportation, leaving them in essentially the same position as if they had not been prosecuted.

This newspaper analysis highlights just some ripple effects of any significant change in federal prosecutorial priorities: with more resources developed to federal immigration cases, there may be fewer federal drug cases brought; but more cases may be handed over to state authorities.  And, in various settings involving non-citizen subject, the results of state or federal prosecution may be impacted by the fact that deportation will follow any conviction.

June 25, 2018 at 08:48 AM | Permalink

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