Will penny-pinching by the Justice Department let small- time bank robbers escape federal prosecution?

America's Community Bankers president Paul A. Schosberg sent a letter last week to Attorney General Janet Reno, expressing "grave concern" about prosecution guidelines announced in June by a regional branch of the Justice Department.

The federal agency's North Carolina eastern district office said it plans to pass robbery cases involving less than $5,000 in stolen funds to local authorities. It is also handing off crimes that do not involve a "dangerous weapon."

In the letter, Mr. Schosberg said he is concerned that "limited resources" will lead Justice to adopt the policy nationwide.

"A robbery of $4,000 or $2,000 is about as serious as one involving larger sums, when all the factors are weighed," Mr. Schosberg argued. "And what constitutes a dangerous weapon?"

Mr. Schosberg asked Ms. Reno to clarify the Justice Department's position. A Justice Department spokesman acknowledged that Ms. Reno had received the letter, but would not comment.

Janice Cole, U.S. Attorney for the eastern district of North Carolina, said the guidelines are nothing new.

"We've had them in place now for a couple of years, and in June we simply put onto paper what we've had in practice," she said. "Traditionally, we handle the more serious, egregious crimes, and refer other cases to local authorities."

Ms. Cole also denied that saving money was a factor in deciding where to draw the line.

"That's no more of an issue than it's ever been," she said. "And to say some bank robberies would go unpunished because of a lack of resources simply isn't true."

Ms. Cole acknowledged that penalties for a crime under federal prosecution can be harsher than those applied by local authorities. People convicted of federal crimes generally aren't eligible for parole, she said.

While even the FBI does not know how many bank robberies involve less than $5,000, 95% of last year's 7,103 holdups involved a weapon.

Mr. Shea writes for the Medill News Service

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