The federal court district in Arizona sent 17,700 people to prison last fiscal year, more than any other district in the country.
Due largely to prison sentences for crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, District of Arizona judges handed down six times more sentences than federal judges in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles combined in fiscal 2017.
Caseload data from the federal court system’s 94 districts are compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization run by Syracuse University that has longstanding public records requests with the Department of Justice and various federal agencies.
In Tucson, federal courts handle white-collar crime, such as fraud and tax evasion, as well as assaults on federal officers and homicides on Indian reservations and at federal prisons, said Eric Rau, supervisory assistant federal public defender in Tucson.
“But what really drives the busy-ness of the district is border cases,” he said.
Clearinghouse data showed the five federal statutes that cover illegal border crossings and most cases of drug smuggling accounted for 95 percent of Arizona’s federal sentences in fiscal 2017, which ended Sept. 30.
Rau and his colleagues see other border crimes besides illegal crossings and drug cases, such as smuggling guns and cash into Mexico.
But he pointed to Operation Streamline, the fast-track prosecution program for illegal border crossings, as one of the main drivers of the border-related caseload.
In Arizona, 81 percent of the federal prison sentences stemmed from illegal border crossings. In Texas’ two border districts, more than 80 percent of the 33,100 sentences involved border crossings.
Border districts stand in stark contrast to districts in the interior of the United States, where the number of sentences ranged from a low of 66 in the Western District of Wisconsin to a high of 2,000 in the Southern District of Florida, according to clearinghouse data for fiscal 2017. The average for non-border districts was about 400.
Arizona and the four other border districts accounted for 62 percent of the 95,900 sentences handed down across the 94 districts nationwide in fiscal 2017.
While illegal border crossings boosted the number of sentences in Arizona, they also contributed to the district having a seven-month average sentence, the shortest in the country. The highest average sentence was 102 months in the Northern District of Texas.
Arizona’s average sentence in fiscal 2017 for the 11,600 people facing at least their second border-crossing conviction was five months. The average sentence for 2,700 facing their first conviction was time served.
In fiscal 2016, the average sentence in Arizona for 12,000 repeat crossers also was five months. The 800 crossers sentenced for the first time faced an average sentence of one month.
For the 465 human smugglers sentenced in Arizona in fiscal 2017 after they were caught at Border Patrol checkpoints with border crossers hiding in their trunks or guiding them through the desert, the average sentence was eight months. In fiscal 2016, the average sentence for 461 human smugglers was seven months.
The 1,200 people convicted of conspiracy to smuggle drugs in Arizona in fiscal 2017, who frequently were caught in groups hauling marijuana in backpacks or acted as scouts for those groups, faced an average sentence of one year. In fiscal 2016, the average sentence for 1,600 people convicted of that crime was 10 months.
The 760 people convicted in Arizona in fiscal 2017 of possession with intent to distribute drugs, often by driving with drugs in hidden compartments, faced an average sentence of 20 months. In fiscal 2016, the average sentence for 600 people convicted of that crime also was 20 months.