Georgia Leads the Nation in Prosecuting White Collar Crimes

On Behalf of | Oct 3, 2023 | Criminal Defense

The news is full of stories that shock us. Drunk drivers taking innocent lives. Brutal murders. And terrifying sexual assaults. It’s also full of stories that paint simple pictures in which we can see good from evil and right from wrong. There is much less emphasis on nuance. It’s hard for reporters to snag the public’s attention with stories about companies that use complicated leasing structures to hook borrowers into leasing items for two to three times their purchase prices.

In many ways, the courts work like news agencies. They frequently work with simple stories to teach public lessons. And they tend to prosecute simpler crimes more often than complex, nuanced ones. For this reason, white collar crimes and white-collar criminals often avoid prosecution.

Georgia’s Southern District is working against a downward trend in prosecutions

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) data research organization from Syracuse University has tracked the prosecution of white collar crimes over the years. It found that in 2022, the most recent year on record, the prosecution of white collar crimes hit an all-time low.

The Department of Justice started tracking white collar prosecution rates during the Reagan administration. In 2022, prosecution rates were less than half of what they were at their peak in the Obama administration.

This trend has continued into 2023, as well. TRAC recently reported that prosecutions continued to trend downward through June. However, this trend did not carry evenly across all jurisdictions. Many jurisdictions took a stronger stand against white collar crimes, and the Southern District of Georgia was chief among them.

Through June 2023, the Southern District prosecuted more white collar crimes per capita than any other district in the nation. Its rate of 443 prosecutions per 10 million people was more than four times the national average of 110.6 prosecutions per 10 million.

Why are white collar crimes different?

As TRAC notes, law enforcement agencies are far less likely to prosecute people for white collar crimes than they are for other, arguably simpler ones. In fact, only 38% of white collar tips and referrals lead to prosecution. Compare this to prosecution rates for some other referrals:

  • Immigration at 96%
  • Narcotics at 73%
  • Weapons at 68%
  • Organized crime at 42%

There are many reasons for the low prosecution rate, but they tend to follow some common themes. White collar crimes are often hard to understand. They frequently involve business transactions that may have an outward appearance of legitimacy. They can be harder to explain to juries. They typically demand that prosecutors prove criminal intent. And, as a result, they often demand long, intense investigations.

Because the suspects in these white collar crimes are often well-educated and financially stable, they frequently work with talented criminal defense attorneys. Their attorneys often help shield them from self-incrimination, limit the scope of the investigation, find the gaps in the prosecution’s story and explore potential solutions outside of court and convictions.

The stakes are high for white collar prosecution

There’s yet one more way that white collar crimes tend to vary from crimes such as simple theft and larceny. The stakes are often higher. The crimes may run afoul of both state and federal laws, and when federal investigators get involved, they can leverage the full strength of the United States government.

Still, the stakes are higher for the investigators and prosecutors, as well. Some reports suggest that 90% of all white collar crimes may go unreported. TRAC tells us that officials choose not to prosecute 62% of the cases referred to them. There are only so many investigators and prosecutors, and it’s clear that they’re choosing the cases they believe they can win.

Several years ago, the FBI estimated that white collar crimes cost the U.S. more than $300 billion each year. That’s far more than we lose to petty theft, but we see more people prosecuted for the smaller charges because they’re easier prosecutorial wins. So, when the government chooses to prosecute white collar criminals, officials want to make an example. Convictions can lead to fines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and lengthy prison sentences.

Prosecutors and judges understand they may not be able to interest the general public in the details of complicated fraudulent schemes. But they can send clear messages with their punishments. They may prosecutor a lower percentage of these crimes, but that just places more pressure on each case they take forward.