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December 14, 2009

Terrific reporting on prosecutorial declinations and prosecutor elections

Thanks to a helpful reader, I discovered a pair of remarkable pieces about the work of state prosecutors from the Waco Tribune-Heraldunder the banner "Measuring Justice."  Here are links to the pieces and their openings:

"Data offer clues on McLennan County district attorney's performance"

The McLennan County District Attorney’s Office does not pursue half of all felony cases recommended by law enforcement officials, with prosecutors dropping most of those cases before formal charges are filed.

At first glance, that statistic might appear to bolster the complaints of some local police, who frequently grouse in private about the prosecutors’ handling of cases. The perception that McLennan County District Attorney John Segrest and his staff dismiss too many cases is one reason the Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Association of McLennan County has decided not to support Segrest in next year’s election.  The group, along with the Waco Police Association, has endorsed local defense attorney Abel Reyna, who is a candidate for the post.

But criminal justice experts say a 50 percent nonprosecute rate could be a sign of an exceedingly well-run office just as easily as it could be a cause for concern.  What is truly troubling is that in most jurisdictions, voters don’t have the information they need to judge that, even at election time, they said.

"Voters often underinformed in DA contests"

Marc Miller likes to joke that district attorneys lose elections only slightly less often than leaders did in the old Soviet Union.  The quip isn’t too far from the truth, though, the University of Arizona law professor said. A recent study of chief prosecutor elections across the nation found that when incumbents run, they win 95 percent of the time.

The primary reason for that success is that incumbent prosecutors aren’t even challenged in 85 percent of elections.  In jurisdiction after jurisdiction, prosecutors are allowed to coast into another term without having to explain how their offices have performed, Miller said.

I cannot say enough about how impressed I am with the reporters and editors of the Waco Tribune-Herald for giving such extended and effective coverage to critically important criminal justice issues that are rarely examined and even more rarely understood.

December 14, 2009 at 03:32 PM | Permalink


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Reporter. The same woman wrote both articles.

Nevertheless. I agree with your assessment.

Posted by: Daniel | Dec 14, 2009 4:39:07 PM

Yup, Daniel hit it. Cindy Culp is one of the five best crime beat reporters in Texas, and I would rank her higher except that she's so good her editors yank her off the beat frequently to cover other topics.

Thanks for pointing these out; I'd missed them.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Dec 14, 2009 4:47:55 PM

On Monday, I heard the prosecutor from Wayne County, Michigan (Detroit), say that her office denied 25% of the warrant requests presented. I strongly suspect that figure is a consequence of the fact that, between her staff shortages, and the number of judges handling cases in her jurisdiction, she can't push any more cases through the system than she is doing now. I also suspect that, in most jurisdictions, the approval rate is 95% or higher. After all, police are experienced actors in the criminal justice system. They know, or should know, what it takes to get a warrant authorized.

Posted by: Greg Jones | Dec 16, 2009 3:40:46 PM

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