When District Attorney George Gascon first took office he was “shocked” to discover that his staff could often not answer even basic questions about caseloads or prosecution and conviction rates.
“You’d ask people around the office how many cases we have…and depending on the day of the week and who you’d ask, you would get significantly different answers,” said Gascon. “The reality is that people would keep their own Excel sheets. Some were actually in handwriting.”
The discovery prompted the launch of “DA Stat,” a transparency initiative announced Wednesday that is intended to create greater transparency by aggregating nearly a decade’s worth of data into three new statistical dashboards that are updated on a monthly basis.
“It was very obvious to me that here we have a multimillion dollar public law firm using government and taxpayer resources without really understanding where the money was being invested, whether it was being invested wisely, and what we were getting for our money,” he said.
Among the data points laid bare by “DA Stat” is a significant reduction in felony prosecutions of drug offenses, which in 2011 made up 51 percent of felony cases prosecuted. After the passage of Prop. 47 in 2014, which reduced personal drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, that dropped steadily down to 18 percent in 2018.
San Francisco is the first district attorney’s office statewide to aggregate its data using the online dashboards. Gascon, who is not seeking reelection after his second term expires this year, said he hopes it will inform investments made by future DAs as well as spark policy conversations throughout the state.
DA Stat enables the DA’s office as well as the public to discern crime trends and prosecution rates over time. In 2015, there were 336 felony prosecutions for auto burglaries, for example, and that number jumped up to 361 in 2016 and 395 in 2017, then dropped to 302 in 2018, after The City made a concerted effort to address the issue.
A glance at historical data trends on DA Stat dating back to the early 2000s also dispels the notion that the SFDA’s office under Gascon’s leadership has trailed behind his successors in filing cases, Gascon pointed out. The dashboard shows that since 2000, the felony filing rate has averaged 52 percent of cases referred by police. That number has been increasing over the past three years.
“When you look at an 18 year period you will see we have been pretty consistent across the board, with a slight increase lately,” said Gascon. “You will see for instance that criticism that this office perhaps is less likely to take action is unfounded and in fact it has increased in the last few years.”
DA Stat for the first time cohesively tracks trial outcomes. The data is broken down by felony and misdemeanor trials and crime types, over time. It also summarizes conviction rates and the average length of trials each year.
In 2018, the DA’s overall trial conviction rate was 83 percent, while trials averaged 11 days in length for a total of 266 defendants.
“No one was really doing a good job in San Francisco County of keeping track of trials until we started doing it in 2014,” said Maria McKee, director of research and analytics in the DA’s office.
“The superior court actually asks their jury assembly room, which is in charge of managing jurors, to tell them how many trials there were each year,” she said. “When we realized that we thought, ‘oh we have to fill that void because we have to know how many trials we prosecute every year’.”
McKee admits that even with the new dashboard, gaps in data persist. For instance, it does not include pleas.
“The disposition data comes from the SF Superior Court. That data is of very low quality, not very reliable. We developed internal processes to be able to have trial outcome data for the pleas that we are not yet comfortable in [sharing],” she said.
The data also does not yet break down demographic information, nor does it include street misdemeanor citations, which is an “entirely paper-based process” in San Francisco, said McKee.
Gascon said that DA Stat is the start of the office wrapping its arms around available data that it is confident in, and added that there is more to come.
“It’s taken us about five plus years to get to this place. I think we now have a good foundation,” he said. “We have to keep adding.”