San Francisco DA's Office Whips Up Its Own Sunlight, Releases Data Sets On Arrests And Convictions
from the make-it-trend dept
A horrifically stupid and likely-illegal raid of a journalist’s house notwithstanding, San Francisco’s move towards greater law enforcement accountability and transparency has been monumental. Granted, this increase’s momentousness is relative. Most cities do nothing at all to increase law enforcement accountability and transparency, so any forward momentum becomes noteworthy for even exisiting.
San Francisco recently became the first city in the nation to ban use of facial recognition tech by local government agencies. The tech’s problematic history and freedom-threatening growing pains should have produced similar bans elsewhere in the country, but so far, it’s only San Francisco. The fact that it did it before law enforcement even started using it deserves to be applauded. Legislators are rarely ahead of the tech adoption curve… if they’re even being informed at all about local law enforcement’s new tech toys by the agencies they’re supposed to be overseeing.
The DA’s office — the same one that issued pretty harsh words about the SFPD’s raid of journalist Bryan Carmody’s home — has released a first-of-its-kind transparency tool to keep the public apprised about arrests and convictions. This open-access recordkeeping is a significant improvement over the DA’s office former record keeping process, which was apparently nonexistent.
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.
As DA Gascon points out, taxpayers spend millions funding his office, but have no idea whether that investment was paying off. The stats included here will at least assure taxpayers new laws are working the way they’re supposed to. For example, a 2014 measure reduced personal drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. This has resulted in a 33% decline in felony drug prosecutions.
It also shows that, for better or worse, the DA’s office is pretty good at what it does.
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.
What isn’t factored into that 83% success rate is how many of those convictions were the result of plea deals. Without this number, it’s tough to tell whether the office is loaded with prosecutors that only bring solid cases, or a bunch of canny salespeople able to talk defendants into giving up rather than exercising their right to a fair trial.
The good news is that factor won’t be ignored. The DA’s office plans to add plea numbers as soon as it can obtain reliable data from the court system, which seems not nearly as interested in participating in the new transparency.
There’s a lot of data here for the public to review and make use of. The DA’s office is also working with the DataSF program and hopes to publish its data sets in full by the end of 2019. Until then, members of the public can examine what’s been released and judge for itself whether the office is earning its keep. And that puts them miles ahead of residents of almost every other city in the United States.