55 Ways to Measure How Good Prosecutors Really Are

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Photo by Eric via Flickr.

A three-year study project has produced a list of 55 “indicators” to measure the performance of prosecutors, judging them in the general categories of capacity and efficiency, community safety and well-being, and fairness and justice.

The indicators were developed by Florida International University and Loyola University Chicago, with support from the Safety & Justice Challenge of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Charles Koch Foundation.

Four local prosecutors, from Florida, Illinois and Wisconsin, took part.

The project’s sponsors say that the indicators should be “used to have a real impact, not just to count numbers. They help prosecutors and communities flag problems, ask additional questions, develop solutions, and measure change over time.”

Most serious criminal cases around the U.S. are filed by about 2,330 prosecutors, who are mostly elected on a county basis.

These prosecutors, who serve populations ranging from 500 to 10 million residents, have wide discretion on what cases to file based on evidence gathered by law enforcement agencies.

There are no nationally agreed-upon standards by which to judge prosecutors’ work.

Kim Foxx

Kimberly Foxx

Some who are running for re-election, for example, cite the number of cases they have filed or the percentage of those cases that result in convictions. Neither of those measures provide much assessment of the quality of a prosecutor’s work.

Prosecutors want to assure the public they are doing a good job, but “how do we measure what goodness looks like?,” asked Kim Foxx, chief prosecutor in Chicago’s Cook County, at a briefing Thursday on the new indicators project.

Foxx, who heads the nation’s second-largest prosecutor’s office, is one of the few prosecutors who already has posted an extensive data report on her office’s caseload.

The 55 indicators proposed Thursday include data on a long list of topics, including prosecutors’ staffing, recidivism of offenders prosecuted and racial characteristics of defendants and crime victims.

Among other items to be measured are how long it takes cases to be processed, how prosecutors allow defendants to enter “diversion” programs as an alternative to incarceration, and how prosecutors interact with the public.

One category is labelled “avoiding unnecessary punitiveness.” The project says that, “Felony prosecutions should be avoided when filing as a misdemeanor can accomplish the same public safety goals.”

If prosecutors publish data called for in the 55-indicator scheme, “we can measure our fairness and evaluate it, and the public can gauge our success,” said State Attorney Melissa Nelson of Jacksonville, Fl., a participant in the development project.

Andrew Warren

Andrew Warren

Another Florida prosecutor who took part, Andrew Warren of Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, said he believes the new scheme could allow prosecutors to “build trust and legitimacy” in an era in which the criminal justice system has been criticized for racial inequities and other failures.

John Chisholm, District Attorney in Milwaukee County, Wi., since 2007, also is a leader in the movement to collect and publicize data on prosecutions.

Even before Thursday’s project announcement, Chisholm had posted on his office’s website numbers on several key indicators he says is part of an effort to promote “transparency, accountability, and data-driven reform” among prosecutors.

Chisholm said that adoption of an extensive set of indicators could help “change the culture of prosecutors’ offices” to improve their relations with the communities they serve.

The project has published several reports on jurisdictions that took part in its development before Thursday’s announcement.

This summer, for example, it described racial disparities in Wisconsin’s criminal justice
system as among the nation’s worst, noting that 42 percent of the state’s 23,700 inmates are black, six time higher than black representation in the state’s population.

However, the study the study found no evidence of racial bias in charging decisions made by Chisholm’s office. Whites were charged in 52 percent of incoming cases, Blacks in 49 percent of cases and Hispanics in 55 percent of cases.

The researchers who led the project were Besiki Kutateladze of Florida International University and Don Stemen of Loyola University Chicago.

In addition to the four prosecutors who spoke on Thursday, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and the Ninth Circuit Solicitor’s Office in Charleston, S.C., are joining the project.

The prosecutor indicators project is one of several devoted to taking a more data-based approach to criminal justice.

As described in The Crime Report, the Rochester, N.Y.-based Measures for Justice has gathered data from 20 states with a goal to “measure every stage of the criminal justice process” across the nation’s more than 3,000 counties.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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