Fewer attorneys, but likely similar caseload
Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth said the biggest challenge his office will likely have to face next year is handling the caseload with five fewer assistant prosecuting attorneys than the department had two years ago.
The prosecutor's department began 2010 with two fewer APAs than last year, as Forsyth had to eliminate two positions to cut the office's expenditures. Then last June a third retired, leaving the department with 33. When January arrives, the office will lose two more, bringing the year's total to 31 — down from 36 in 2009.
At the same time, Forsyth said the office's caseload isn't going down. "Surprisingly, it's been very constant," he said.
The office has authorized about 4,500 felony warrants and roughly 5,000 warrants for misdemeanors each year since 2007. The department is on pace to reach those numbers this year, and Forsyth felt the caseload would end up with similar numbers in 2011.
County prosecutors tried 415 cases in District Court from 2007 to 2009, with three-quarters ending in guilty verdicts. The office tried 339 Circuit Court cases during those three years; 86 percent ended in defendants being found guilty. Attorneys are likely to match those trial numbers again in both courts this year, and are expected to do the same next year.
Besides having fewer ADAs for what is expected to be a consistent workload, Forsyth said the other issue the department has to contend with is the office isn't in charge of its caseload. Local police departments make the arrests and the courts set the schedules. "We have a department that has no control over what it will do," he said. "It's hard to measure how long a case is going to be and how many cases we're going to try."
Still, the department has seemingly performed well, especially when its outcomes are compared to the felony conviction rates of five other county prosecutor's offices in the state. According to data from the Michigan Department of Corrections, each assistant prosecuting attorney in the local office had more convictions than their peers in Oakland, Macomb, Genesee, Ingham and Kalamazoo counties.
Kent had 101 convictions per APA, a figure based on the 33 assistant prosecutors in the office. Macomb was second at 86 convictions per APA, with 55 APAs. But even that result hides the local office's true accomplishment, as Forsyth took the number of APAs in each office and divided that figure into the total number of convictions the offices won.
His department, however, doesn't have all 33 APAs working on felony cases.
"We only have 17 assistants assigned to handle over 3,000 felony cases," Forsyth said. That means each APA in the criminal division had 196 convictions. "By comparison, we come out pretty well," he added. "In reality, it's almost 200 cases per attorney."
The six-county comparison also showed that the cost-per-resident for a prosecutor's office was the second lowest in Kent County at $13.08, based on a budget of $7.9 million and a county population of 605,213. Only Macomb County was lower at $11.92. The data shows the Macomb office as having a $9.9 million budget and a county population of 830,663. But in Kent County each APA represented 18,340 residents, while each APA in Macomb represented about 3,200 fewer residents at 15,103.
"I believe I can demonstrate that not only is the staff of the Kent County Prosecutor's Office among the hardest working and most efficient in the state but that the Kent County taxpayers get far more for their tax dollars than do the citizens of other jurisdictions," said Forsyth.
There is one area where Forsyth thought the caseload could increase next year: the juvenile division. Right now, the office sees about 2,700 cases a year. But recently, termination cases — one of the case types handled by the juvenile division — have been on the rise due to the bad economy and more out-of-wedlock births involving women without much family support. Termination hearings reached 467 last year, up from 263 in 2008. About 390 hearings are expected to be held this year. Forsyth said these cases focus on child neglect and are originating from the Department of Human Services.
Forsyth said interns are a key component of the department. The office has up to five law students each year. They come from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School and Michigan State University and cover activities in District Court. Forsyth said that without them, more APAs would have their work shifted from Circuit Court to District Court.
"We couldn't do what we do now without the interns," he said.