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Friday, March 09, 2007

Commentary: New Quota System for DA's Office

One of the most frequent complaints about the Yolo County District Attorney's Office under former District Attorney David Henderson had been the intractability of their prosecutions. Far too many minor cases were pursued well beyond the point that they should have. The District Attorney's office often failed to adequately use discretion in which cases to prosecute. And they would be extremely reticent to drop even cases that they either could not win or should not pursue. We can see those practices at work in three fairly high profile cases--the Buzayan case which was dismissed by a Judge, the Khalid Berney case which was dismissed after a judge forced the prosecutors to reintroduce their evidence, and the Bernita Toney case where the Jury acquitted the defendant.

A more reasonable prosecutor's office would not have pursued convictions in this questionable cases to begin with. In two of the cases, they were pursued because of orders from the command and leadership structure to the Deputy District Attorney that they must obtain a conviction and under no condition could they drop the charges.

This practice does not serve the public good from a fiscal or policy standpoint. The District Attorney's Office is to represent the interests of the state in pursuing criminal prosecutions. Often, they mistake that for being a prosecution machine where their job is solely to gain convictions rather than pursue actual justice. Sometime justice requires strong prosecutions to put dangerous criminals behind bars and protect society. However, at other times that means using discretion to realize when the public interest is better served by dropping poor cases against individuals who pose no threat or against whom the cases are weak and questionable to begin with.

It is within this framework that newly elected District Attorney Jeff Reisig enters the picture. Reisig of course came with the support of David Henderson as well as most of the deputy district attorneys in this county. That said there was some hope that policies would change. The evidence so far indicates that the policies have not changed.

One clear example is the establishment of a new bulletin board that tracks the progress of cases. Deputy District Attorney's get their names placed on the board as the case enters the system and they get their case tracked to an inevitable acquittal or prosecution. The implication is that those with the most prosecutions are doing the best job. In some ways that sounds like a good incentive.

However, the logical conclusion of this policy is the creation of a quota system. This leads to an inevitable continuation if not exacerbation of the current problems in the system.

First, those Deputy District Attorneys with many cases will be looked at more favorably than those with fewer cases. This means that there is an unstated incentive to get more cases onto the board by pursuing prosecutions rather than dropping charges.

Second, those Deputy District Attorneys with more convictions will look more favorably than those with fewer cases. This means again that there is an unstated incentive to obtain more prosecutions. Again this means that there is a disincentive to drop the charges or the case when it is clear like the cases mentioned above that there is a weak case or no strong compelling public interest to pursue charges.

The implication of this is that those Deputy District Attorneys who pursue more cases and obtain more convictions will be promoted, awarded, acknowledged and that those with fewer will not. Thus an unstated quota system emerges from this practice.

Why is this a bad idea? Statistics can be a measure of good performance on the part of prosecutors, however, they can always indicate dogmatism that serves neither the defendant nor the public interest.

We can use a clear example of police quotas for speeding tickets. Is the officer with more speeding tickets issued doing a better job or is he simply pursuing a greater frequency of marginal cases in order to increase his statistics?

The use of such incentives structures moves us in the wrong direction. It is clear that Jeff Reisig is continuing his predecessor's questionable prosecutorial discretion and in some ways even outdoing it. Yolo County needs to rethink its policies in this area because a lot of people are unfortunately getting caught in the crossfire and most do not have the resources to fight it.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting