Justice Department, United States

Justice Department, United States


The U.S. Department of Justice is responsible for enforcing federal law, preventing and controlling crime, and protecting the interests of the nation in legal matters. Created in 1870, it is directed by the attorney general, the nation's chief law enforcement officer, whose office long predates the department itself. Under the aegis of the Justice Department are a number of prominent law enforcement bureaus and agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), United States Marshal Service (USMS), and many others. Another prominent Justice agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), became part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. In the twenty-first century, key areas of concern for Justice are terrorism, worldwide drug trafficking, community violence, white collar crime, substance abuse, and hate crimes.

History. In 1789, the first Congress passed the Judiciary Act, which established the federal justice system and created the Office of the Attorney General. A member of the cabinet without his own executive department, the attorney general advised the president on legal matters and represented the federal government before the Supreme Court. Among the prominent attorneys general of those early years were Roger B. Taney (1831–33), who later became one of the most notable chief justices of the Supreme Court, and Edwin M. Stanton (1860–61), who became Secretary of War under President Abraham Lincoln.

In 1870, Congress created the Department of Justice, and placed all existing federal law enforcement agencies—for example, USMS, also created by the 1789 Judiciary Act—under the new department. Its head would be the attorney general, and its second-highest office would be that of solicitor general, whose job it is to supervise and conduct government litigation before the Supreme Court. Prominent solicitors general included future president William Howard Taft (1890–92); future Supreme Court justices Charles Evans Hughes, Jr. (1929–30) and Thurgood Marshal (1965–67), who was also the first African American solicitor general; Archibald Cox (1961–65), Robert Bork (1973–77), and Kenneth Starr (1989–93).

Among the notable attorneys general since 1870 were A. Mitchell Palmer (1919–21), a leading figure in the post-World War I "Red Scare"; future Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone (1924–25); Robert F. Kennedy (1961–64); Ramsey Clark (1967–69), noted for his later involvement in protest movements and highly publicized court cases; John N. Mitchell (1969–72) and a host of other attorneys general associated in some way with the Watergate scandal; and Janet Reno (1993–2001), first female attorney general.

Mission, agencies, and activities. The mission of the Department of Justice is to enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to law; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those found guilty of unlawful acts; to administer and enforce the nation's immigration

Attorney General John Ashcroft briefs reporters at a press conference at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., on October 29, 2001, as the FBI issued a new terrorism warning asking Americans and law enforcement to be on the highest alert for possible attacks in the United States and abroad. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.
Attorney General John Ashcroft briefs reporters at a press conference at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., on October 29, 2001, as the FBI issued a new terrorism warning asking Americans and law enforcement to be on the highest alert for possible attacks in the United States and abroad.

laws fairly and effectively; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.

The Justice Department accomplishes that mission through a vast array of activities. In addition to the FBI and DEA, prominent agencies include the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (part of the Treasury Department until 2002); the Federal Bureau of Prisons and its National Institute of Corrections, which are responsible for the incarceration of sentenced offenders; the U.S. National Central Bureau of Interpol; and USMS, which is responsible for protecting federal courts and ensuring the effective operation of the judicial system. Long celebrated in story and legend, U.S. marshals pursue 55 percent of all federal fugitives, more than all other federal agencies combined.

The Justice Department conducts legal actions against violations of federal antitrust laws through its Antitrust Division, and violations of civil rights laws through its Civil Rights Division. Its Civil Division represents federal interests in civil litigation, while the Criminal Division develops, supervises the application of, and even enforces federal criminal statutes not covered by other agencies. The Asset Forfeiture Program handles money and other goods involved in criminal activities.

Through sections such as the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the Office of Justice Programs (which includes numerous bureaus such as the American Indian and Alaska Native Affairs Desk), the Department of Justice maintains state, municipal, and community outreach activities designed to reduce crime and crime-related behaviors, and encourage citizen involvement in crime prevention. It maintains databases on criminal activity through the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Drug Intelligence Center. The National Institute of Justice develops and disseminates studies on issues related to crime and justice.

The Justice Department Strategic Plan, released late in 2001, discussed the challenges and opportunities faced by the department at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Whereas crime rates had gone down from the 1930s to the 1960s, in the latter decade they had begun to climb, and continued to do so until the mid-1990s. The period after the mid-1990s, however, saw a steady reduction in criminal activity nationwide.

The report credited more coordinated national policing efforts in the wake of the congressional passage of the Safe Streets Act in 1968. This had led to increased financial assistance for law enforcement at the federal, state, and local levels, resulting in the development of agencies that were better prepared to meet the challenges of their environments.

Additionally, since the late 1980s, criminal and juvenile justice agencies had increasingly partnered with community-based organizations such as schools, churches, businesses, social services, and victim advocacy groups. In 1984, the Victims of Crime Act established an Office for Victims of Crime in the Justice Department, even as numerous national and community-based organizations were formed to provide support to victims of rape, spousal abuse, drunk driving, and other crimes.

The Justice Department was given broader authority to enforce federal law against criminal organizations, including gangs, criminal syndicates, and terrorists. During the mid-1990s, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and the establishment of a National Instant Criminal Background Check System had helped bring about a steady decrease in gun-related crimes. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 greatly stiffened prison sentences, requiring mandatory terms for certain crimes and abolishing federal parole. These changes, along with more aggressive enforcement measures, led to an increase in the number of incarcerated persons, which reached an all-time high of1.8 million detainees in 1999.

From the present to the future Among the notable aspects of the early twenty-first century law enforcement environment noted in the report were globalization and advances in science and technology. The terrorist attacks of September, 2001, had dramatically illustrated the international scope of criminal activity, but the Justice Department had also increasingly taken a multinational approach, working with Interpol and other groups overseas.

Similarly, advances in information technology made possible new opportunities for crimes involving fraud, theft of intellectual property, and child pornography, while scientific advances in the use of DNA evidence and other forensic technology provided a boost to law-enforcement activities. Other technologies noted in the Justice Department report were advances in biotechnology and bioengineering (most notably the decoding of the human genome), and nanotechnology, or the ability to manipulate matter at the molecular or even atomic levels.

Leading the list of key concerns for the coming years, of course, was terrorism, followed by its close cousin, worldwide drug trafficking. Other significant criminal areas include white collar and economic crimes such as health-care fraud, as well as hate crimes and crimes involving infringement of victims' civil rights.



200th Anniversary of the Office of the Attorney General, 1789–1989. Washington, D.C.: Department of Justice, 1991.

The Department of Justice Manual. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Law & Business, 2000.

Moriarty, Laura J., and David L. Carter. Criminal Justice Technology in the 21st Century. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1998.

Riley, Kevin Jack, and Bruce Hoffman. Domestic Terrorism: A National Assessment of State and Local Preparedness. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1995.


U.S. Department of Justice. < http://www.usdoj.gov/ > (April 14, 2003).


ATF (United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms)
Commission on Civil Rights, United States
DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration)
Domestic Preparedness Office (NDPO), United States National
FBI (United States Federal Bureau of Investigation)
INS (United States Immigration and Naturalization Service)
Interpol (International Criminal Police Organization)
NDIC (Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center)
NIJ (National Institute of Justice)
Terrorist Organizations, Freezing of Assets

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