Conviction Rates Matter

ruins

On Sunday, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a lengthy article on that city’s abysmal conviction rate for violent crimes. For every three violent-crime arrests in Philadelphia, only one results in a conviction. There are a lot of worse-sounding statistics in that article, but they’re completely meaningless, as they refer only to convictions of the top count, ignoring the reality of plea bargaining. Still, this meaningful stat, the one-in-three conviction rate, is appalling.

Worse than that, about ten thousand violent arrestees walked, no conviction at all, in 2006 and 2007. Only 8% of that number were found “not guilty” after trial. The remaining 92% walked after their cases were dropped or dismissed.

At the same time, FBI stats show that Philadelphia has the highest violent-crime rate of all the big cities.

Coincidence? Of course not.

Violent-crime defendants aren’t getting convicted, and violent crimes are through the roof. There is causation there.

Conviction rates matter. A low conviction rate means the system is broken. If it was working, the rate would be 70% or higher. 33% = broken. Broken means people are being prosecuted for crimes when they shouldn’t have been charged in the first place. Broken means people aren’t getting punished for their violent crimes. And society suffers both ways.

We blame the prosecutors. More on that in a bit.

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The Philadelphia courts have created a public perception that violent crime will not be punished. The odds of getting convicted are minor, and the odds of taking a felony are even lower. It doesn’t take too long for people to figure that out. And the bulk of crimes are committed by people who have frequent contacts with the criminal justice system. This critical demographic repeatedly experiences that the odds are in their favor. The system keeps reinforcing this perception that, if you commit a violent crime, you’ll probably get away with it.

Perception is everything in this system. In order to prevent crimes from happening, our system relies heavily on the deterrent effect of punishment. Deterrence is important. It doesn’t affect crimes of passion in the heat of the moment, but most crimes involve some planning or forethought, and those are the ones we want to make people think twice before committing. Whether they think twice or not depends on what they think might happen.

If people generally believe that a criminal act will probably result in punishment, then they will generally avoid that behavior. This would be true even if such acts were never actually punished (think of the budget savings, increased productivity, and human value society could preserve if we could devise such a system!). And the converse is true — if every criminal act got punished, but nobody realized it, then all that punishment would have zero deterrent effect.

In general, our system tends to fall somewhere between the two extremes. There is an amorphous sense that people can get caught, and that most of those who do get caught wind up getting punished. This perception results in a general background level of deterrence that’s meaningful.

Most law-abiding folks add a huge layer of deterrence on top of that, arising from the morals and ethics ingrained during their socialization and upbringing. But those folks aren’t the ones the criminal law really cares about. The law isn’t designed to deter them; it’s designed to deter those who would gladly commit such crimes if they didn’t they’d get punished.

Such people come from all walks of life. Sure, there are plenty of thugs from anarchic streets, who couldn’t care less about their victims or the rules. But there are also the spoiled suits who are just the same, caring nothing for their victims and thinking the rules don’t apply to them. For every crime, there are opportunists of every stripe.

And if the system fails to create the right perceptions, opportunists are going to take advantage of the perceived opportunities… obviously.

And that’s what’s happening in Philadelphia, it seems.

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How did it happen? The Inquirer has 6 ideas. We think one or two might even be worth considering.

1) First, the Inquirer says that witness intimidation is working. Witnesses and their families are known to get killed in that city. That scares potential witnesses, who decline to come forward. So cases can’t be proven, and get dismissed or result in minimal plea bargains.

The way we see it, the number of such instances is vanishingly small, but the visceral significance of such instances is dramatic, and so the statistics have a lot more weight than they perhaps deserve.

Regardless, we still have a major problem with this explanation: What are the prosecutors thinking? If you don’t have your witnesses lined up, if you are not in a position to prove your case at trial, you have no business filing charges in the first place. You investigate before charging someone with a crime, not after. It is this blog’s position that any prosecutor who files charges before being able to prove them beyond a reasonable doubt is committing misconduct. The better prosecutors’ offices don’t allow such behavior.

But if the Philly prosecutors are having to get rid of cases because they couldn’t round up any witnesses, that means they were charging these cases prematurely and unethically.

So this “witness intimidation” excuse is really nothing more than a symptom of a deeper problem — that the Philly prosecutors are jumping the gun, and then having to deal with the consequences. And the result of their behavior is a public perception that violent criminals can get away with it. Well done, that DA.

2) The caseload is too high. The judges are too busy, says the Inquirer, so they “put a premium on disposing cases” rather than going to trial.

That’s just nonsense, of course. The vast majority of cases everywhere are disposed of before trial. It’s not the judges who make it happen, either. Defendants agree to plea bargains that cut their losses. Prosecutors agree to plea bargains that result in a fair sentence. And both sides avoid the enormous uncertainty, expense and risks of going to trial.

Plea bargaining does not begin to explain how two-thirds of violent arrestees don’t wind up getting convicted, nor does it explain a public perception that violent criminals are probably going to get away with it.

3) The Inquirer points to the statistic that nearly 10,000 violent-crime defendants had their cases dropped or dismissed in ’06 and ’07.

Again, this means to us that the finger must be pointed squarely at the DA’s office. What the heck are they doing, charging 10,000 people with crimes they couldn’t prove? Cases get dropped or dismissed because they shouldn’t have been charged in the first place. This statistic shows an appalling lack of judgment on the part of the Philly prosecutors.

What are they doing, just charging everyone who got arrested? Perhaps. It’s a sad fact that there are some DA’s offices out there who think it’s their job to zealously advocate for the conviction of everyone who got arrested. But of course that is not only not their job, it’s unethical for them to behave that way.

Prosecutors are given enormous power and discretion, and it is an abuse of that discretion not to exercise it in the first place. They’re supposed to first figure out whether the case should and could be prosecuted, before wasting time and treasure on a pointless case, and dragging people through a horrific process. And they’re certainly not supposed to delegate their discretion to the police, who have neither the authority nor the purpose to exercise it. But those DA’s offices that simply take on every arrest are doing precisely that.

Maybe instead they’re just charging people without proof, in the hopes of getting a plea bargain, and hope nobody calls their bluff. That’s nothing short of criminal extortion, if true.

It should be nigh impossible to dismiss a case, unless there is newly-discovered evidence, or the interests of justice demand mercy. Otherwise, there ought to have been enough evidence to take the case to trial before charges were ever filed. This staggering statistic demonstrates that the DA’s office is charging thousands of people with crimes, when they had no business doing so.

4) The Inquirer says the DA’s office doesn’t track how well or how poorly its cases fare, and as a result cannot prioritize the work of its 300 prosecutors.

That’s sort of irrelevant, really. 300 prosecutors is plenty. The Manhattan DA handles way more cases, and better, with not many more ADAs.

And prioritizing who’s working on what isn’t really something the stats ought to affect. A significant number of losses and dismissals are an indicator that a particular prosecutor might need to be reassigned, but wins and losses don’t affect where you focus your manpower. It’s really just a supply-and-demand thing — put the bodies where they’re needed, that’s all.

5) Philadelphia’s courts are uncoordinated. The basic logistics of getting the parties and witnesses together for trial becomes a disorganized fustercluck of delay. Eventually, cases just collapse because they can never be brought to trial. Defense attorneys know this, and take advantage of it.

We can’t speak to how things work in Philly, having never practiced there. But this doesn’t sound too much different from state court in New York. Unlike federal court, where your trial date is your trial date, NY state courts just set date after date until by lucky chance everyone is ready to go at the same time. It’s pointless and inefficient as hell, but it doesn’t seem to be a huge problem. Most cases get there sooner or later. (Our magic number is usually 5 — if we’ve answered ready four times, it’ll usually go on the fifth. YMMV.)

Getting the cops to show up is a hassle for state prosecutors everywhere. Cops think they’re job is done when they made the arrest, court keeps them from making more arrests, and they don’t like being cross-examined any more than the next fellow. But that’s a simple fact of life everywhere, and doesn’t explain why Philly’s any different. Ditto for herding cats and witnesses. And ditto for defense attorneys who take advantage of the government’s inability to get its act together. It happens everywhere. It’s really irrelevant here.

6) Finally, the Inquirer says the courts aren’t enforcing bail. “Defendants skip courts with impunity,” so that there are nearly 47,000 fugitives in that town. “Impunity” means they never forfeit their bail. The city courts estimate “a staggering $1 billion” in supposedly forfeited bail remains uncollected. Fugitives don’t get convicted, because they’re not in court.

That is appalling. The whole point of bail is to ensure a defendant comes back to court, by holding his money hostage. The defendant puts up his cash or gets a loan from a bondsman. If the defendant doesn’t show up when he’s supposed to, he loses his cash or the collateral for the bond.

But if the defendant never forfeits his bail, then bail serves no purpose.

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Whatever the reason, the conviction rate in Philly is so low as to be counterproductive. The DA’s office is acting in ways that increase, rather than decrease, the incentives to commit crimes.

People are being chewed up by the criminal justice machine when they never should have been charged in the first place. Not all of them got dismissed or acquitted. Who knows how many more went through it and went to jail? And criminals are committing more crimes with impunity. Everyone suffers.

This low conviction rate is merely a symptom of a deeper illness. The DA’s office is charging people when it shouldn’t be. It’s either jumping the gun before enough evidence is in, or it’s abusing its discretion and taking on every single arrest, or it’s trying to extort pleas. From the evidence in this article, it looks like the DA’s office is the disease at the root of it all.

There’s going to be a new DA there in January. We’ll see if he does anything about it. In the meantime, on the whole, we’d rather not be in Philadelphia.

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2 Comments

  1. elsewhere, June 8, 2010:

    Good post as always, man.

  2. John Neff, January 23, 2012:

    I recently read an article about the large reduction in the population of the county jail that serves Philadelphia and one of the two reasons for the reduction was that the county attorney was dismissing charges within a few days where there was no prospect of a conviction. The other reason was the courts were sentencing pople to prison rather than suspending part of the sentence and having them serve the sentence in jail.

    You post was written in Dec, 09 this was a very recent article so maybe they have a new CA or the old CA figured out what was happening.

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