Conviction rate high for Kent

March 2, 2009
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According to data from the Michigan Department of Corrections, assistant attorneys in the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office had a higher conviction rate in felony cases heard in circuit court last year than their counterparts in five other comparable counties.

Each assistant county prosecutor was responsible for 80 “guilty” decisions, on average, last year. Next was Kalamazoo County with 69 convictions for each assistant attorney. (See chart below.)

Other comparisons of the six prosecutors’ offices are also noteworthy:

  • Oakland County prosecutors had a felony conviction rate of 50 per attorney, 30 fewer than Kent. Yet Oakland had nearly three times the number of assistant prosecutors and a budget almost three times larger than the local office

  • Macomb County prosecutors had 750 more convictions last year than Kent, but Macomb also had 26 more assistant attorneys than Kent. The additional convictions and attorneys averaged out to be 29 convictions per assistant prosecutor.

  • Genesee County’s budget was $332,000 more than Kent’s was last year, but had 1,181 fewer felony convictions.

The local office prosecuted 75 felony cases in Kent County Circuit Court through Sept. 1 last year and recorded a conviction rate of 89 percent. In only eight of those cases did a jury return a not-guilty verdict.

“You can always improve, but I think we’ve always been blessed in this county that we’ve got a staff of really experienced, really dedicated and hard-working attorneys,” said County Prosecutor William Forsyth.

The prosecutor’s office averages about 3,000 felony cases each year and Forsyth expects that number to be the norm for years to come.

“Yeah, frankly because a lot of it is a product of there are only so many police officers and they’re only going to be able to arrest a certain number of people. There is only a limited number of judges, and a limited number of availabilities in terms of court time,” he said.

“The numbers are pretty constant over the years. The conviction rate varies a little bit from year to year, but you would expect it to. Whenever you have a jury, you never quite know what they’re going to do with a set of facts,” he added.

The office’s per-attorney conviction rate of 80 cases is a generality because it’s actually lower than the real number, as it is for every county. In the county comparison that Forsyth recently gave the county’s Finance Committee, he included all the assistant prosecutors that are employed in each county office.

But he also said that not every assistant attorney is assigned to circuit court felony cases in any of the counties. In Kent, 17 of the 38 attorneys prosecute felonies in circuit court. So the average conviction rate for each of the 17 assistant prosecutors is closer to 180 than 80.

“The reason I broke it down by the total number of assistants divided into the number of felony convictions is simply because it’s too hard to call all the counties to figure out how they employ all of their assistants,” said Forsyth.

“In reality, those 3,000 convictions were obtained by about 17 lawyers.”

Forsyth also limited the comparison to circuit court felony convictions because unlike misdemeanors and other filings, which can be counted differently from county-to-county, these verdicts are tabulated in the same manner for every county.

“In circuit court, all these statistics are kept by the Department of Corrections. Regardless of what county these are coming from, they are counted the same.”

Assistant attorneys are also assigned to district court, which typically has a higher volume of cases than circuit court. Others work in the family, probate and juvenile courts and the appellate division. Other attorneys review police reports and decide whether arrest warrants should be issued, a function Forsyth sees as possibly the most important one in his office.

“The decision whether to charge somebody with a crime or not, to me, is the most crucial thing we do. We need to be very certain that we are charging somebody who has committed a crime and that we can convict them of that crime before we charge them,” he said.

“We can certainly ruin someone’s reputation by charging them with a crime only to have it later dismissed or have the person found not guilty. … You better be darn certain you’re on firm ground to charge someone, because otherwise you run the risk of ruining someone’s reputation.”

Two other statistics Forsyth included in his comparison are also noteworthy:

  • Each of the office’s 38 prosecutors serves 15,114 residents in Kent County, the highest number of citizens served by a single attorney in the six-county comparison.

  • Each assistant attorney costs each Kent County taxpayer $13.65 a year, the second-lowest per-taxpayer charge among the six counties.

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