Friday, April 20, 2018

On increasing prosecutor caseloads in an era of crime decline

On Twitter, TDCAA complained about Grits' observation in this post that, as the number of crimes with victims declined over recent years, police and prosecutors have shifted their focus to areas where they may maintain or even increase caseloads despite more than two decades of dropping crime.

The association is right that caseloads have increased. Grits has discussed before how the number of criminal convictions statewide continued to rise long after crime and arrests began to drop. In his book, Locked In, John Pfaff demonstrated the same trend occurred nationwide from the mid-90s to the late aughts, with the number of felony-charges-per-arrest over that period rising from one-in-three to two-in-three. So, even as crime and arrests declined, the number of convictions continued to rise.

On the ground, Grits sees this trend playing out as law enforcement shifting resources to activities that aren't particularly public-safety oriented and which certainly aren't responding to people's victimization.

For example, the Ector County Attorney authored a blog post in February detailing his 2017 caseload. (County Attorneys in Texas prosecute all misdemeanor cases.) The top two offenses prosecuted by his office were marijuana possession (19% of cases) and Driving With Invalid License (17%). At 16% of the caseload, DWI enforcement came in third.

I don't want to pick on Mr. Gallivan because his numbers are pretty typical - he just happened to have put his caseload data out there. But 36 percent of his office's caseload is either prosecuting people for paperwork violations (DWLI is about license status, not safety), or churning through low-level arrests for a nonviolent activity (user-level pot possession) which would be legal in nine states and the nation's capitol. (In related news: A Quinnipac poll out this week found that nearly 2/3 of Texas voters support legalizing recreational pot possession.)

These are the big growth areas in prosecutor caseloads. Similarly in the Travis County data that originally inspired the prosecutors' complaint, possession-level drug arrests accounted for nearly all of the increase in caseload; otherwise, jail bookings had gone down.

So when crimes with victims diminish, these sorts of evergreen offenses are where the system shifts its focus.

None of this is raised to blame prosecutors - the Legislature creates and defines crimes, not them, and often they are reacting to whom police choose to arrest. Rather, my point is to raise the question: Is that what we want the justice system to be doing? When crime goes down, is it a good use of resources to criminalize paperwork violations or prosecute pot smokers to justify high staffing levels? Would taxpayers be better off if Mr. Gallivan prosecuted all those DWLI and pot cases, or if he eliminated 36 percent of his staff and provided voters with tax relief (with additional relief coming from lower jail and court costs, etc.)?

These seldom-discussed questions are worth asking, even if the prosecutors' association takes offense. They're not the only ones to blame for a distorted and dysfunctional system, but right-sizing it will require significant changes to how they perceive and perform their duties.


Anonymous said...

It's obvious from TDCAA's Twitter replies they don't want an intelligent debate, preferring instead to belittle and use intimidation tactics to quash opposing dissent. What I can never understand is that they can't seem to see the forest because of the trees, or they do but refuse to acknowledge it. Their reply to Pishko was incredibly obtuse, as if violent and sex offenders made up the vast majority of felony we wouldn't know better.

Anonymous said...

Grits, the ignorance of the TDCAA tweeter is breathtaking. They claim mass incarceration can’t be reduced by 50% due to the sex and violence crimes being above 50% of all crime. The bureau of prisons state show those crimes only account for less than 13% of all crimes.

Anonymous said...

And then there is methamphetamine....The elephant in the room that neither GFB or anyone in the pink dome ever seem to want to talk about.

Anonymous said...

TO 8:07am

The methamphetamine crisis... it is bewildering how little publicity the Methamphetamine epidemic is receiving.
Maybe its because our "love affair" with Mexico and keeping open borders would be jeopardized if the public knew how much Meth is being trafficked from Mexico on an hourly basis?

Ray Hill said...

Bored prosecutors like bored cops find things to do and that usually means creating laws for people to be charged with and stretching definitions of laws to "catch" more people to prosecute.

Anonymous said...

Cracking down on meth would mean a lot of country white folks would be going to prison, but then again I'm all for seeing less Nazis and peckerwoods on the streets!

ISIS convinces some loser to "martyr" themselves in the United States a fewftimes a year, but the Aryan Brotherhood is poisoning thousands of people in my city every day, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see where those laser guided bombs and commandos would do the most good.

Anonymous said...

On a related note, look at how the field of human trafficking has exploded in recent years, exploded not in the sense of more of it happening but of the long existing practice being made the whipping post of every police chief or police agency in need of grant dollars. Don't get me wrong, forced servitude is a horrible crime it's just that so many are willing to employ junk statistics that project impossible numbers of victims, all while police catch almost no offenders nor save many victims.

So now when police arrest a street walker or her customer or raid some spa, they announce the event is a blow to human trafficking, the District Attorney's office jumping on the bandwagon along with every group imaginable with a hand out for the endless grant money available. Have the tactics the cops use changed over the years? Not very much, they still pose as prostitutes and make offers to customers who are then arrested, cries of entrapment falling on deaf ears by the system. When asked for the official arrest numbers of traffickers in these operations, the answers are as generic as you will ever find from government bureaucrats too, in most cases the number is zero yet if any are honest enough to provide that answer, you will hear a litany of excuses or how all those arrested were supporting trafficking in some manner.

Perhaps if grants were credibly audited this crime would disappear from the radar or at very least efforts would be updated to address the crime without the need for bolstered statistics. The sad truth is that all numbers provided by anti-trafficking groups are so poorly derived using statistical models that would never survive a real challenge but Middle America has been sold another whopper, the horrible crime nowhere near as common as authorities would have us believe.

Anonymous said...

07:23:00 AM, no truer words have ever been spoken.

dadzgrl76 said...

Way to keep it real Grits! Someone in Texas has to.