Criminal prosecutions have dropped dramatically at the U.S. Attorney's office in Minneapolis under the leadership of B. Todd Jones, rankling some in law enforcement.

A Star Tribune analysis of federal prosecutions in Minnesota in the past six fiscal years shows that significantly fewer people are being charged -- especially those involved in drug crimes.

Drug suspects made up 60 percent of the defendants charged under former U.S. Attorneys Thomas Heffelfinger and Rachel Paulose in 2006. Under Jones they account for just 36 percent, and illustrate a major shift in the office's priorities.

Several federal and state law enforcement sources said that the U.S. Attorney's office refused to prosecute drug and violent crime cases that would have been snapped up by Jones' predecessors. None agreed to be quoted, saying they must maintain a relationship with the U.S. Attorney's office.

Jones said in an interview that he's not surprised by the grumbling. He spoke by phone from Washington, D.C., where he's working a dual job as acting head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

He said some of it reflects a "hangover" of bad feeling between federal prosecutors and local law enforcement over an investigation of the now-disbanded Metro Gang Strike Force. Some result from decisions he's made to deal with a two-year budget freeze.

Jones acknowledges that his prosecutors are rejecting some "street-level" cases they might have taken in the past, leaving them to county attorneys.

Federal prosecutors are focusing on labor-intensive cases involving criminal organizations, complex white-collar crimes and international terrorism, as well as crimes that have exclusive federal jurisdiction such as bank robberies, Indian Country crimes and securities law violations.

"If some elements in law enforcement disagree with that prosecutorial decision ... then I'm sorry," Jones said. "The world's changed, and we have different priorities."

Behind the numbers

The number of defendants charged federally in Minnesota peaked at 668 in 2007 under Paulose, who resigned that year amid a staff revolt over her management style. On Jones' watch, 343 defendants were charged in fiscal 2012 -- a drop of 49 percent from the peak.

More than nine out of 10 defendants charged federally plead guilty, and nearly all who go to trial also are convicted.

The number of defendants pleading guilty peaked in fiscal 2009, resolving charges from the terms of Heffelfinger, Paulose and her temporary replacement, Frank Magill.

Since Jones took over in September 2009, the number of defendants found guilty through pleas and trials has steadily declined, falling to 463 in 2012, a 36 percent drop.

The number of trials also has dropped. Forty-eight defendants went to trial in 2006. In 2012, half that number were tried.

Jones, who was hired by Heffelfinger as an assistant U.S. attorney, said "the high-volume, we're-going-to-trial kind of numbers" from 2006 are easy to explain.

"It's one thing to do 48 cases that are street-level drug dealers ... high-volume gun cases or bank robbery cases. I did the job and so I know," Jones said.

"Tom was all about guns and drugs. We could do that all day, but we've chosen not to because that's not the best use of our resources."

Jeanne Cooney, who prepares the annual reports for the U.S. Attorney's office in Minnesota as director of community relations, said the office began turning away routine drug cases in 2010, but never stopped pursuing drug cartels.

"We had to pull back in drugs, an area county attorneys can handle just fine," she said. "That allowed us to start working more sophisticated white-collar cases."

The U.S. Attorney's office has about 55 trial attorneys, about three dozen of whom work criminal cases. But a dozen of the attorneys were hired just before the Justice Department imposed a freeze in January 2011. "We've got a lot of new people who are getting their sea legs," Jones said.

Even so, he said, internal tracking data show that the prosecutors are working harder than ever. Attorney work years -- a measure of the number of hours worked -- went way up as the office tackled increasingly complex cases. He cited Ponzi schemes run by Tom Petters and Trevor Cook, and recruitment of Twin Cities men into a Somali terror group, as examples.

Federal prosecutors in Minnesota took heat for declining a case alleging that Somali gang members were trafficking young girls from the Twin Cities in an interstate prostitution ring. The U.S. Attorney's office in Nashville charged 29 defendants in that case in January 2011.

Jones said the decision predated his term, but he thinks the staff made a good call. Just three defendants were found guilty, and last week a federal judge in Tennessee overturned those convictions. Nine were acquitted, and charges were dismissed against three others. (The remaining cases are unresolved.) "I think to a certain degree, they got sold a pig in a poke" in Tennessee, Jones said.

Cooney said the sentencing figures in 2012 reflect the priority Jones set to go after the worst offenders. In 2012, a record 41 percent of defendants sent to prison got more than five years, compared to 6.3 percent in 2006. She attributed the lengthy terms to prosecutions of child pornography, certain gun cases and conspiracies.

"We can't be taking on smaller cases," Cooney said. "We just don't have the resources."

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493