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Federal Prosecutors' Unchecked Power and Zeal Creates Prison Nation

No other arm of the federal government is less accountable.

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This kind of hard-bargaining, over-criminalization, and knowing the federal government holds almost all of cards is precisely what makes U.S. attorneys an imperial power center in what’s supposed to be a democratic system of checks and balances. As the Huffington Post reported, this was the second case where Heymann went after a computer hacker who ended up committing suicide.

But the majority of people who are put behind bars by federal prosecutors for non-violent crimes, especially drug and immigration offenses, are swallowed up by the system and don’t have high-profile defenders like Aaron Swartz.

It’s also arguable how much public pressure will change federal enforcement priorities. After USA Today published its series on prosecutorial misconduct in 2010, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder dismissed the accusations and defended the Justice Department’s self-policing practices. Recent immigration reform proposals that could drastically undermine the prison treadmill appear to be dying in the GOP-controlled House.

Meanwhile, in California, some local officials are suing the U.S. attorneys over shutting down medical marijuana operations through property forfeiture actions. California’s top federal prosecutors complain that their decision to go after the industry has led to unfair criticism that obscures their other good work—like Birotte getting an $82 million fine against Walmart for water pollution under the federal Clean Water Act.

“It [marijuana] is far from the most important thing that we do,” Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, told local reporters. “I did not seek the position of U.S. attorney in order to launch a campaign against medical marijuana.”

However, Wagner and the federal government’s three other top prosecutors in the state are not backing down on pot. And short of explicit congressional directives, there’s little that anyone can do to reel in the power of crusading federal prosecutors.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).