Do You Think the CoCo DA is Doing a Good Job?

A profile in an East Bay weekly gives Mark Peterson decent marks for starting to clean up a troubled shop. The DA says he needs more money to keep good prosecutors.

Two years into the job, the former Concord city councilman at the head of the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office is making slow progress reforming an agency with a reputation for cronyism and bad behavior.

That’s the assessment of a profile of Mark Peterson in a recent issue of the East Bay Express, which casts a reform-minded liberal against an Old Boys network unwilling to let go of power without a fight. At the heart of the piece is Peterson’s efforts to make advancement for prosecutors more transparent.

The DA’s office still uses an unusual and controversial cost-saving method that puts lawyers on contract for three year stints, after which time they are hired or the contract is not renewed. Critics have said that the system rewards sycophants and sends smart lawyers looking for better places to practice.

In January, Peterson’s office provided its own self-assessment to the Board of Supervisors. The report noted that at 92 percent, Contra Costa boasts the highest felony conviction rate in the Bay Area.

But the report also warned that if the office's lawyers aren't paid more, prosecutions in the county could suffer: It is absolutely essential that the salaries of all of our prosecutors be increased to be more competitive.  Otherwise, we will simply be the “training ground” for other prosecuting agencies; we will lose our very best, most experienced prosecutors; and our prosecution efforts  discussed above will suffer.

Dive Turn Work February 06, 2013 at 06:34 AM
As long as I'm never, ever called again to serve on a jury then I'd say he's doing a good job. I've served on a jury twice, gotten out of it once, and plan to never serve again.
Magic 8 ball February 06, 2013 at 03:24 PM
Here is a better questions for DA Peterson. What is the percentage of felony arrests made by the police to felony prosecutions by the DA's Office? I would be willing to bet my house, retirement and first child that the percentage is not 92% or anywhere near that. So the DA has a 92% conviction rate on cherry picked prosecutions? That is just political hay for the Committee to Reelect Mark Peterson. That said if you want to keep qualified Deputy DA's you will need to compensate them.
Chris Nicholson February 06, 2013 at 03:52 PM
Great point on the statistics. I think we'd need to see the full "funnel" of arrests to convictions. For a full picture, I think you'd need to look at plea bargain outcomes-- does that count as a conviction? I assume it does, but you'd need to consider the "discount" offered (typical sentence for conviction post trial versus sentence under plea arrangement). At another level, there is probably an optimal conviction rate somewhat less than 100%. I would be suspicious of a 99% rate (implies that many crooks that are almost certainly guilty are going free due to have a wrinkle in there case that makes it less than slam dunk). In any case, kinda hard for citizens to make an intelligent assessment.
Dive Turn Work February 06, 2013 at 05:12 PM
Those statistics would need a serious review because it could indicate that you have police officers arresting people on flimsy evidence that the DA can't take to trial. That would be a problem with the police departments not the DA. Additionally, would you include plea bargains in your numbers? A smart DA will plea out many cases and as a taxpayer I'm quite happy with that outcome as it's cheaper and I have no desire to pay additional taxes.
Alex Gronke (Editor) February 06, 2013 at 07:12 PM
Interesting point DTW. But wouldn't more plea bargains increase the incentive to commit crime (in the form of lighter penalties) and thus require more costly policing?
Dive Turn Work February 06, 2013 at 07:17 PM
I would disagree. Plea bargains may result in a shorter prison sentence, but if the simple act of being in prison for a day doesn't detour you from a life crime then I find it difficult to imagine that a 10-year stint is going to cure you.
Magic 8 ball February 07, 2013 at 12:28 AM
DTW it would seem to me that you just undercut your own argument and buttress Gronke's premise that lighter sentences do not detour crime. If one day or ten years don't matter why prosecute crime at all?
Chris Nicholson February 07, 2013 at 12:39 AM
Plea bargains are a form of insurance, not simply a reduction in sentence. Both sides acknowledge the cost, risk, uncertainty of a jury trial and thus each is willing to compromise to avoid the risk. The willingness to offer plea agreements (if done rationally and in good faith) is in no sense being "soft on crime" or reducing deterrence. Again, as I noted above, you need a lot more data before drawing any conclusions about a DA's effectiveness. And, given the many moving pieces, statistical comparisons are of limited utility.
Dive Turn Work February 07, 2013 at 12:53 AM
Magic - You prosecute crime to get people off the streets for some period of time. However, it's simply not cost effective to take every case to trial. You'd have to throw millions and millions and millions at the system & get no return on investment because the longer sentences won't produce a rehabilitated individual. It's a balance. But, that reality isn't the fault of the DA so it's unfair to penalize the DA for operating within the realities of the world. Plea bargains are a win for the DA and should be counted as such.
Chris Nicholson February 07, 2013 at 01:31 AM
@DTW: agree that it might be.a win, as long as DA is paying "market prices" in terms of plea "discounts" to typical sentences on conviction after trial. This of course is hard to benchmark.
Andrew L. February 07, 2013 at 04:56 AM
It is not the comparison between one day and 10 years that matters, it is the comparison between 10 years and 15 years. There is no causative link between increased rates of incarceration (and lengthier prison terms) and an overall reduction in criminal activity (obviously, if you imprison a criminal until he dies, he will not commit any more crimes). Instead, it is the type and intensity of policing that is key.
Andrew L. February 07, 2013 at 04:58 AM
According to the press, the real problem with the Contra Costa County D.A.'s office is a lack of morality and ethics, which, if true, is troubling.
Dive Turn Work February 07, 2013 at 05:37 AM
It has certainly had various trouble with its employees. I used this to get out of jury duty so I can't complain too much.
Linda Meza February 08, 2013 at 01:33 PM
I didn't really have an opinion until I watched (via video http://martinez.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=914) Mr. Peterson address the Martinez City Council, I have to admit I'm impressed.


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