Budget Cuts Haven’t Meant Prosecution Cuts Here, Santelle Says

In case any criminals reading this are hoping to avoid prosecution because budget cuts are reducing the reach of federal prosecutors, their hopes are ill-founded – at least for now, according to James Santelle, the U.S. Attorney for the eastern district of Wisconsin.  

But down the road and even now in places other than eastern Wisconsin? Cutbacks in federal spending could and sometimes are translating into decisions not to prosecute cases, Santelle said. 

Speaking Tuesday at an “On the Issues” session at Eckstein Hall, Santelle told Mike Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, that the staff he oversees in offices in Milwaukee and Green Bay, has been reduced from about 80 several years ago to about 70 now. More cuts may lie ahead, he said.

But so far, the reduction has been accomplished without affecting decisions on who to prosecute, Santelle said. That hasn’t been true in offices of US Attorneys in some places around the country, where decisions on matters such as “smaller” drug cases or white collar financial crimes are being shaped by whether the office has adequate resources. He said a $1 million bank fraud in some instances may be below the threshold a prosecutor has set for bringing a case to court, given practical limits on how much can get done.

Santelle said the annual budget of his office is about $8 million – and prosecutions generate about 10 times that each year in penalties, fines, or repayment to the government for improper spending. Santelle said that while politicians understand that the US Attorney’s Office is actually a money-maker for the government, it is hard to expect prosecutors will be spared from across the board cuts.

Santelle’s hour-long session before about 75 people touched on a wide-range of issues, from the high priority put on national security work, even in eastern Wisconsin, where there have, fortunately, been no terrorism episodes, to the positive sides of a legal career in federal service. Santelle has worked for the Justice Department since1985 and has been US Attorney for eastern Wisconsin since 2010.

Santelle was appointed by President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and, in an era of strong political partisanship, he agreed that there have been more matters brought to his office by political activists on either side of the spectrum who think people on the other side have done something wrong. But he had no hesitation in labeling the way prosecutors do their work as “apolitical.” He said he had never been involved in something such as a decision on a prosecution where partisan politics was a factor in how to proceed.

He said, though, that changes in the presidency can have an effect on priorities of the Justice Department, such as how much attention is given to enforcement of environmental regulations. 

Santelle said that a tighter supply of cocaine was driving up prices on the street. For prosecutors, that means more crimes being committed where the drugs involved are pills or other controlled substances. Gousha asked him his thoughts on public opinion polls that show wide support for decriminalizing marijuana use. Santelle said he should be counted on the side of those who oppose that. Marijuana is, in his view, not just a recreational drug. He said marijuana that is being sold today is often far more potent than what was available a generation ago and has more serious effects on users.

Overall, Santelle said, the level of cooperation among law enforcement officials has improved significantly from the past, when different federal agencies kept information from each other and there was limited cooperation between federal and local prosecutors or officers. He said there is generally good communication between law enforcement representatives working in the Milwaukee area, and he talks frequently to people such as Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. “You benefit tremendously from the fact that law enforcement talks to each other,” Santelle said.

The session with Santelle can be viewed by clicking here.

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