S.F.’s felony conviction rate improves

San Francisco’s felony conviction rate is on the rise, according to state Justice Department data, but remains considerably lower than the statewide average.

In 2003, the year before District Attorney Kamala Harris unseated her predecessor, Terence Hallinan, the percentage of convictions won in felony cases filed in San Francisco was at 52 percent, lower than the statewide average of 83 percent.

Since Harris took office, the conviction rate has made a steady trajectory, up to 58 percent in 2005, and now at a midyear pace of 66.9 percent for 2006. The statewide average has remained above 80 percent during these years.

“I’m proud of our conviction rates, we're doing better each year and sending more people to prison,” Harris said.

Nonetheless, San Francisco’s conviction rate is still below not only the statewide average, but also compared with other urban areas and counties. In 2005, the conviction rate for Los Angeles County was 85 percent, in Fresno County it was 77.2 percent, in Santa Clara County it was 86.4 percent and in Alameda County it was 74.5 percent.

A recent surge in homicides and violent crime hasput the spotlight on The City’s law enforcement efforts, with city leaders looking to a variety of solutions — including surveillance cameras, foot patrols, enforcement of a city curfew. To date, San Francisco has had 66 homicides in 2006; in 2005, there were 96 murders, up from 88 in 2004.

At a time when The City’s homicide rate is climbing, those who advocate a tough-on-crime approach often look to conviction rates as a way to measure the effectiveness of a prosecutor. From 2004 until the present, Harris has been able to prosecute 87 percent of the homicide cases police have presented to the office and has secured convictions in four out of five of those cases.

Harris said her office was picking up momentum and moving in the right direction. Career prosecutors have been recruited from across the country, she said. The office has undergone a technological overhaul and is more professional. The Board of Supervisors approved a budget that allowed for the hiring of more lawyers and there’s been more training, she said.

“Should it be better? Yes,” Harris said. “Will it be better? Yes.”

Harris, who criticized Hallinan’s low felony conviction rates during her campaign, said turning the tide was difficult at first because the District Attorney’s Office was “functioning really badly for a long time.”

The district attorney said her office has also worked to increase the penalties and focus on gun crimes as well as drug crimes. A special team of prosecutors that handles gun violations has increased the felony gun violation conviction rate from 43 percent in 2003 to 90 percent in 2006.

“The approach of my administration versus the prior administration is I don’t think drug crime is a victimless crime,” Harris said. “Not when you’re talking about drug dealers on street corners where families live.”

Frank Zimring, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law cautioned about tryingto look at crime through one prism.

Conviction rates are difficult to compare from county to county, because each municipality has different standards for deciding which cases can be won in court. He also noted that police departments and prosecutors frequently “play the mutual blame game,” with police complaining that prosecutors don’t turn enough arrests into convictions and prosecutors charging that police make arrests on evidence that won’t hold up in court.