Editorial: The DA’s conviction rate: It’s a start

Of course it’s true that, even when a district attorney starts winning more convictions, we still don’t have an exact index to that elusive goal called a safe city. But Kamala Harris, San Francisco’s DA, deserves appreciation for raising the felony conviction rate nearly 15 percent since winning office two years ago.

Harris, justifiably, can trumpet Justice Department data showing the rate moved from 52 percent in 2003 to 58 percent last year to 66.9 percent this year. That’s still below the statewide average of 83 percent, and there are all sorts of reasons these measurements aren’t what they seem. But it’s still an impressive trajectory, and it’s what voters expected when they sent her to turn out Terence Hallinan’s risible regime.

Prosecutors do have at their disposal, as public defender Jeff Adachi wrote in a letter published in Tuesday’s Examiner, several ways to boost their conviction rates. They can “overcharge,” for example, throwing as many counts as possible at a defendant to see what sticks. Such devices tell us little, if anything, about the crime rate itself.

Nor does The City’s improved conviction picture compare favorably with other counties. The 2005 conviction rate for Los Angeles County was 85 percent, Fresno County’s was 77.2 percent, Santa Clara County’s 86.4 percent and Alameda County’s 74.5 percent.

But counties are different — in topography, demography and law-enforcement traditions, among other factors — and it’s hazardous to make such comparisons. Even in The City, those traditions adjust, if not precisely alternate: In recent history, the level of mayoral determination to make the streets safer shifted back and forth, if only marginally, from Frank Jordan’s administration to Willie Brown’s to Gavin Newsom’s. The prosecutorial transition from Hallinan to Harris signaled a different direction, too, presumably tougher.

Crime itself, especially violent crime, unmistakably is climbing back to the top of public concerns around The City. The reasons are not just anecdotal: This year’s murders, nine months of them, number 69. In all of 2005 there were 96 — not a comforting trend. The political class, preoccupied with mandatory health care, parking taxes and obligatory window screens, finally may be noticing.

That’s why we hear more debate about surveillance cameras, foot patrols, curfews, truancy controls and other means of cracking down on violent crime. Harris herself maintains that she’s focused on gun and drug crimes, running through her rhetorical scales by distancing herself from Hallinan. “The approach of my administration versus the prior administration,” she says, “is I don’t think drug crime is a victimless crime.”

There is political resonance in such talk, and in such prosecution, even though violent crime mounts. We’d welcome serious criminological discourse in The City, even if it adduced politically incorrect data.

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