Federal Drug Prosecutions Drop in Minnesota As Priorities Shift, Newspaper Finds
By Elizabeth Murphy | December 31, 2012 6:41 pm

The number of criminal prosecutions in the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s office has dropped during the tenure of U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones, according to an analysis by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Jones attributed the decline to a new focus on more complex crime and away from drug-related prosecutions.

Since Jones took over in 2009, the number of defendants found guilty through pleas and trials has declined by 36 percent, the paper found.

A shift in priorities and resources has forced attorneys to focus on longer-term cases, Jones told the paper.

“If some elements in law enforcement disagree with that prosecutorial decision … then I’m sorry,” Jones said. “The world’s changed, and we have different priorities.”

B. Todd Jones

Jones is doing double duty as acting chief of the trouble Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Attorney General Eric Holder appointed the Minnesotan to run the agency in August 2011 after then-director Kenneth Melson was ousted over the botched Fast and Furious gun-tracking investigation.

Jones told the newspaper that his office is increasingly leaving county and state attorneys to handle “street-level” crimes. The new priorities include tackling criminal organizations, complex white-collar crime and international terrorism, he said.

In 2006, about 60 percent of defendants were charged as drug suspects under former U.S. Attorneys Thomas Heffelfinger and Rachel Paulose, both George W. Bush administration appointees. Under Jones, drug related prosecutions account for 36 percent of the workload, the Star Tribune reported. Heffelfinger served as Minnesota U.S. Attorney from 1991 to 1993 and then again from 2001 to 2006. Paulose served from 2006 to 2007 (the then-33-year-old Paulose was reassigned amid a staff revolt over her management style). Frank Magill served as an interim replacement until Jones was confirmed by the Senate.

In 2007, the number of defendants charged in Minnesota hit an all-time high of 668 under Paulose, the newspaper reported. In fiscal year 2012 under Jones, 343 defendants were charged, which is a decrease of 49 percent from the top number, the Star Tribune reported. In 2006, the number of defendants going to trial was 48, while fiscal year 2012 saw half that number, the newspaper found.

Jones noted that it was Heffelfinger who hired him as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, but also said the goals of his predecessor have changed.

“Tom was all about guns and drugs,” Jones told the paper. “We could do that all day, but we’ve chosen not to because that’s not the best use of our resources.”

About 36 of the 55 attorneys in the Minnesota office work on criminal cases, a dozen of those were hired just before the Justice Department put in place a hiring freeze in January 2011. “We’ve got a lot of new people who are getting their sea legs,” Jones told the newspaper.

Despite the decreased numbers in prosecution, the figure for sentences has seen a healthy boost, a Minnesota official told the newspaper. Jeanne Cooney, the office’s director of community relations, said the lengths of sentences has increased over the past several years, with 41 percent of defendants sent to prison for more than five years in 2012. It was only 6.3 percent in 2006, she told the Star Tribune.

“We had to pull back in drugs, an area county attorneys can handle just fine,” she said. “That allowed us to start working more sophisticated white-collar cases.”

She added: “We can’t be taking on smaller cases. We just don’t have the resources.”

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