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Tracking the U.S. Government Through Its Records: Findings on Law Enforcement, Immigration, the IRS, and the Courts
By
Volume 39, Number 4 - July/August 2015

You know you have come up with interesting findings when both the plaintiff and the defense in a major federal lawsuit cite your data, which is then discussed by the judge (aclu.org/legal-document/jefm-v-holder-order).

That’s what happened to a recent series of findings the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC; trac.syr.edu) developed from millions of case-by-case records obtained from the Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Review under the Freedom of Information Act (foia.gov).

TRAC found that 63,721 “unaccompanied” children—children who crossed the border alone seeking refuge—had cases pending in immigration court at the end of October 2014. Of this total, only 20,691 have lawyers; the rest must represent themselves. History shows those with legal counsel fare far better. During the last 10 years, the children with lawyers had a 49% chance of being allowed to stay in the U.S., while those without had only a 10% chance. For cases decided from FY 2012 through FY 2014, a period in which there was a surge of unaccompanied children crossing the border, 15% without lawyers got to stay in the country, compared to 73% with representation.

Several groups, as reported by Politico’s David Rogers, are now suing the government to demand that all children in immigration court—where there currently is no legal guarantee to a lawyer—be provided with counsel if they can’t afford one (“Court Win for Immigrant-Rights Attorneys”; politico.com/story/2015/04/court-win-for-immigrant-rights-attorneys-116940.html).

TRAC also developed an online data tool that allows users to examine the outcomes of deportation proceedings against unaccompanied juveniles in each state and to aggregate those outcomes based on whether the child had representation or not (trac.syr.edu/phptools/immigration/juvenile). These sort boxes appear below the bar chart of juvenile immigration court deportation proceedings. The tool is updated monthly and, as of May 2015, was current through April 30, 2015. TRAC publishes an occasional series of white papers on the data, with the latest appearing in November 2014 (trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/371).

TRAC’S HISTORY

Many similarly important findings have emerged during TRAC’s 26-year history Its analyses of case-by-case government records detail actions aimed at white-collar criminals, terrorists, civil rights violators, tax cheats, and many others.

TRAC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center, based at Syracuse University, dedicated to providing timely, pertinent, and authoritative information about the workings of the federal government. It is directed by its co-founders: Susan Long, a professor of managerial statistics at the Whitman School of Management, and David Burnham, a former investigative reporter with The New York Times, now a professor at the Newhouse School of Public Communications.

TRAC is self-funded, using a mix of grants, gifts, and subsc riptions to continue its work. Its immigration offerings, thanks to support from the Four Freedoms Fund, are free and open to all (tracfed.syr.edu/notices/fee_schedule.html). For many of its other projects, TRAC issues free reports and then provides subscribers with custom data tools they can use to mine the data themselves on TRAC’s servers (tracfed.syr.edu/notices/fee_schedule.html). The TRAC Fellows Program allows scholarly researchers access to special data abstracts (trac.syr.edu/fellows).

Here’s a look at some of TRAC’s more active projects.

The Judge Information Center

The Judge Information Center (tracfed.syr.edu/judges/interp) is one of TRAC’s newest offerings. It brings together several tools that allow users to examine the civil caseloads and criminal sentencing practices of virtually every federal district court judge in the country. The tools and the data behind them have allowed users to develop findings that include identifying the busiest judges and busiest court districts in the nation; to research differences in the time it takes to process and close a case from judge to judge and district to district; to examine disparities in the way judges sentence defendants for the same crimes; and to compare court administrators’ recommendations for new judgeships against the actual workloads of the nation’s 94 district courts.

As Thomas M. Susman, a retired partner at Ropes and Gray and now the director of government affairs for the American Bar Association, said in recent interview: “Every trial lawyer develops his or her own impression regarding how particular judges perform. These anecdotal judgments … can be very different from what TRAC’s analysis of the judge’s own case-by-case data show. The data may well hold some surprises; they certainly will provide the basis for better-informed judgments.”

Susman was speaking from his experience as a trial lawyer and not on behalf of the ABA.

The Judge Information Center is a mix of free and subscription offerings. All the reports TRAC writes from this data are free. So too is the tool that examines the asylum denial rates of immigration court judges. Also free are tools that allow the user to sort judges by district, by name, by the number of pending civil cases they preside over as of the last update, by the number of civil cases each judge has closed in the past year, and by the number of defendants the judges have sentenced in the past 5 years. Subscribers can access a series of in-depth reports on each federal district court judge that further examine these factors.

The data behind most of the Judge Information Center tools are updated quarterly.

TRACFED

TRACFED (tracfed.syr.edu), TRAC’s most extensive and sophisticated offering, is a collection of more than a dozen data tools on how the federal government enforces the law, where it assigns employees, and how it spends our money. Its offerings are particularly rich in the area of criminal enforcement, allowing users to examine case-by-case data at every stage in the enforcement process.

Questions the tools can answer include the following: Which agencies are referring the most cases for prosecution? What cases are prosecutors choosing to bring, and which are they using their discretion not to file? How do those decisions change over time, and how do they vary by district? What’s the average sentence for various federal offenses, and how do those sentences vary, from judge to judge, district to district, and even case by case?

Most of TRACFED’s offerings require a subscription. However, as with all TRAC Reports, TRAC’s own white papers—which contain a wealth of data—are free to all.

tracirs

Examining the practices of the IRS (trac.syr.edu/tracirs) was TRAC’s first formal project and also the first collaboration between Long and Burnham (Burnham’s book on the IRS was just reissued: A Law Unto Itself: The IRS and Abuse of Power, Open Road Distribution, 2015). Many of the data tools in this area are free and give users the ability to generate findings on corporate tax returns and audits, individual tax returns and audits, IRS criminal enforcement by judicial district, reported income by county, and more (trac.syr.edu/tracirs/tools).

Additional tools and datasets are available to subscribers.

FOIA PROJECT

Since TRAC is an active user of FOIA, it launched the FOIA Project (foiaproject.org) in 2011 in an effort to document agency compliance with this law, which codifies the public’s right to request and obtain government documents.

On the site, users can find a collection of every lawsuit brought against a government agency under FOIA since FY 1997—more than 26,000 documents from 8,600 federal district and appellate court cases. The FOIA Project also has an active blog that examines new filings that the project cap tures (our database of FOIA cases is updated daily) and features interesting FOIA cases, of which there are no shortage. FOIA cases often make fascinating reading and can shed light on new and unannounced policies and news disputes that have not yet been written about by reporters.

The project is currently engaged in an intensive effort to add data from the agencies on the numbers of requests they receive, the amount of time it takes to process them, how many requests remain backlogged, and wait times.

All the FOIA Project offerings are free and open to everyone.

TRAC’S TOOLS

TRAC also has several other offerings on immigration enforcement (TRAC Immigration Tools; trac.syr.edu/phptools/reports/reports.php?layer=immigration&report_type=tool) in addition to the tool on unaccompanied children discussed above. Users can examine deportation proceedings by nationality, geographic location, year, and type of charge; immigration cases closed based on prosecutorial discretion; immigration court backlogs; where immigration detainers are being issued; and more.

When people first hear about TRAC, they often think they have stumbled upon a well-kept secret. But the truth is that TRAC gets substantial usage from journalists, scholars, lawyers, and others and is cited almost daily. In addition to browsing TRAC’s own reports (trac.syr.edu/tracreports), examining how others are using TRAC’s data is often helpful to generate ideas on how to incorporate TRAC data into your research. TRAC maintains a partial listing of citations, with links to the actual article where possible (TRAC at Work; trac.syr.edu/tracatwork/index.html).


Greg Munno is assistant research professor, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Newhouse School, Syracuse University.

 

Comments? Contact the editors at editors@onlinesearcher.net

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