All About Kamala
It's in the numbers: One percent. That's how many San Francisco felony cases Peter Jamison examined in "A Lack of Conviction" [Feature, 5/5]. Just 1 percent. Based on this absurdly tiny sample, he drew sweeping, utterly misleading conclusions about criminal prosecution in our city. Overall felony convictions, in fact, have soared to a 15-year high, according to the state Department of Justice. Even a casual observer knows that criminal trials represent a tiny percentage of the total criminal cases handled every year. In 2009, for example, fewer than 100 felony cases were resolved at trial in San Francisco out of approximately 7,000 new felony cases we filed. Of this already tiny percentage, Jamison sliced the apple even thinner, examining just three months' worth of criminal trials in 2010. That's even less than 4 percent. The conclusions in his article are worth about as much as the data they're based on — very little.
What's really happening here is a classic [conundrum] about conviction rates: When conviction rates are high, you assume that prosecutors must be cherry-picking, taking only the "easy" cases. (In 24 years as a prosecutor here, I can tell you that there is no such thing as a "slam-dunk" case before a San Francisco jury, as the article acknowledges.) When conviction rates dip, you assume that prosecutors must have screwed up.
The reality, acknowledged obliquely in the article, is steady, significant progress in prosecuting felony crimes in San Francisco over the last six years. According to the state Department of Justice, in 2008, we hit an 18-year high in the percentage of felons prosecuted in San Francisco.
Our overall felony conviction rate is at a 15-year high. In 2008, it was 70.7 percent, according to the DOJ. In 2003, before [District Attorney Kamala] Harris took over, it was 50.4 percent. San Francisco prosecutors nearly doubled the number of serious felons sentenced to state prison. Last year, more than 900 felony offenders in San Francisco were sentenced to state prison, according to the Superior Court. In 2003, it was 521.
The felony trial conviction rate is also much higher than before. In 2003, only 62 percent of felony trials resulted in a conviction. As for felony trials that didn't result in a conviction, we won't apologize for taking the toughest cases to a jury. And some of those cases are very, very hard — a gang case where witnesses don't cooperate, or a domestic violence case where the victim is too scared to testify against the abuser. But if we believe we can prove it, we're taking those cases before a jury, even if that means that we "lose" in the eyes of SF Weekly or anyone trying to manipulate statistics.
If, like us, Jamison had ever stood with victims of crime who have just choked down their fear to tell their story in open court right to their attacker's face, he'd know that even if the jury ultimately doesn't return a guilty verdict, those victims don't feel like losers. Neither do we.
Chief of the Criminal Division
of the District Attorney's Office
Peter Jamison responds: Neither the district attorney's office nor staff for Harris' attorney general campaign hesitate to use what Ross calls the "absurdly tiny sample" of felony trial convictions when it shows prosecutors in a favorable light. Visitors to the office and campaign Web sites will notice that high conviction rates for gun-offense trials — as well as for murder trials, before the sharp drop in these convictions over the past 16 months — are highlighted. We stand by the premise of our story: Trial success, while not the only measure of a well-run D.A.'s office, is one significant benchmark in gauging performance.