WASHINGTON — Teams of federal agents assigned to track down people on the run from serious criminal charges are locking up thousands of fewer fugitives, even as more local police agencies say they lack the time and money to chase them on their own.
Arrests by those teams, led by the U.S. Marshals Service, have plunged nearly 25% since their peak in 2009, mostly because the Marshals Service narrowed the types of cases its officers can investigate. The result is that agents arrested nearly 24,000 fewer fugitives for state and local crimes last year than they had five years earlier, according to Marshals Service reports.
Those fugitive teams are part of a decade-old attempt by the federal government to help overwhelmed police departments locate felony suspects they couldn't track down by themselves, especially those who flee beyond the reach of local police.
"In the bad budget times, we had to refocus our priorities," said Jeff Tyler, the Marshals Service's head of domestic investigations who oversees its fugitive-tracking offices. "We recognize that just going after every fugitive available, we didn't have the resources to do it."
Instead, he said, the agency's fugitive task forces now focus almost exclusively on tracking down the "worst of the worst," particularly violent fugitives, who often take longer to find. The Marshals Service also has quietly shelved a suggestion to expand its fugitive-hunting teams into 11 other regions around the country.
FULL INVESTIGATION: Thousands can escape justice
The policy changes frustrate critics who say the federal government needs to stake out a bigger role in helping local police agencies find — and, in particular, retrieve — fugitives, particularly when they escape across state lines.
"They should be doing more of this, not less," said former New York police commissioner Howard Safir, who helped start some of the Marshals Service's first fugitive-hunting units in the 1980s. "Very often, these guys end up on the street committing other crimes."
The federal government's role in tracking state and local fugitives has always been limited. Marshals Service teams — made up of federal agents and officers borrowed from local police departments — typically agree to pursue only the most serious cases, typically focusing on violent crime and drugs. And once they find a suspect, they almost always leave it up to local authorities to bring him or her back to court.
The difficulty of bringing them back is one reason police and prosecutors across the United States routinely decline to pursue fugitives across state borders. A USA TODAY investigation this year found that officials are unwilling to spend the time or money to retrieve tens of thousands of felony suspects from outside their states, including fugitives on the run from charges of robbery, sexual assault and murder. Those decisions, which are seldom revealed publicly, have left crimes unpunished and suspects free to commit new offenses elsewhere.
That picture is only getting worse as police and prosecutors confront budget cuts of their own. In the nine months between August 2012 and May 2013, the number of felons police told the FBI they would not extradite from other states increased more than 31%.
Marshals Service teams will pursue a fugitive only if the agency that wants him or her promises in advance to extradite from wherever the fugitive is found, and cover all the costs.
Federal agencies have many of the tools to help, if not the money. The government has a fleet of vans and planes that shuttle federal prisoners and immigration detainees across the country. And it has the legal authority to return state and local prisoners to the places they're wanted using a law that makes it a federal crime to cross a state border to avoid prosecution.
But that power is seldom used. In 2012, the government charged just 193 people with violating that law, down 84% from a decade earlier, according to figures compiled by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which tracks federal prosecutions.
ALL IN A DAY'S WORK
The Marshals Service has been in charge of tracking down fugitives on the run from federal court for decades. In 2000, Congress told the agency to start going after people facing state and local charges, too. To do that, the Marshals Service set up seven regional task forces, pairing local officers with federal agents.
Last year, those teams arrested nearly 74,000 state and local fugitives, down from about 97,000 five years before.
On a recent morning in Salisbury, Md., they were after four more.
First on the list was a woman suspected of beating an acquaintance with a baseball bat. Four agents in green bulletproof vests climbed out of their trucks and positioned themselves outside her weathered duplex, listening for sounds from inside and peering at the windows to see whether the curtains moved. One scaled the sloping front porch and pounded on her front door. "If you don't open the door, I'm going to have to knock it down," he shouted.
After a few minutes, thinking they had heard someone inside, the agents forced their way through the back door. They searched inside but found no one. They struck out again at an apartment complex where they heard she might be staying, but found her a few hours later at the Taco Bell where she worked.
"That's how it works," said Rob Fernandez, who oversees the Marshals Service's Capital Area Regional Fugitive Taskforce, which includes the team in Salisbury. "We spend a lot of time knocking on doors or watching people. Most police departments can't do that. They come to us because we can."
A few hours later, the team's trucks take off down a country highway after another fugitive on the list — a man facing assault charges who had already successfully fled from state troopers. When a trooper tried to pull him over again, he sped off. The agents followed, racing through clouds of dust on narrow city streets, sirens blaring.
Two minutes after the chase began, the man dashed out the passenger door, scrambling through one yard, then another. Agents and local officers stopped him at gunpoint a block away after they said he tried to throw a loaded 9mm handgun over a fence. A few hours after that, they found another fugitive after an electronic license plate reader detected his car was heading into Ocean City, Md.
"All in all, a typical day," Fernandez said.
THE 'WORST OF THE WORST'
As recently as a year ago, Justice Department told Congress they were prepared to set up 11 more fugitive task forces like the one in Washington. That would have allowed the agency to assign more federal marshals to full-time fugitive work. But officials acknowledge they've dropped that request.
"That isn't the current plan," Taylor said. "There's nothing really on the table now."
And the teams it has now are shrinking. Since 2011, the number of full-time Marshals Service employees assigned to tracking fugitives dropped about 12%, to 1,601, according to Justice Department budget reports. At the same time, the agency imposed new limits on the types of fugitives its agents can pursue, winnowing the list largely to people wanted for violent crimes — and then only if the state or local agency agrees upfront to extradite.
Lawmakers have occasionally pushed for funding that would increase the number of agents assigned to pursue state and local fugitives or to help cover the cost of extradition once they're found, but the legislation has gone nowhere.
"You have to really have a checklist, to say, OK, is this guy violent? At the end of the day, you end up going after the worst of the worst," said Tommy Bustamante, a former Marshals Service supervisor in Dallas.
"A lot of the local jurisdictions, as long as that fugitive isn't in their community, they're not going to put much effort into bringing him back," he said. "What it boils down to is money, and that's sad. If our agency had the funding and the authority to go and grab that guy and take him back, we'd do it in a heartbeat."