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Bonuses for Conviction Rates

Now here is a thoroughly bad idea.  Jessica Fender reports in the Denver Post,

Eighteenth Judicial District* Attorney Carol Chambers has created an unusual incentive for her felony prosecutors, paying them bonuses if they achieve a predetermined standard for conviction rates at trial.

The threshold for an assistant district attorney to earn the average $1,100 reward: Participate in at least five trials during the year, with 70 percent of them ending in a felony conviction. Plea bargains or mistrials don't count.

I understand that she wants to reward the better performers and have an objective measure for deciding who is better, but the measure falls considerably short.
When I was in the Air Force, it very quickly became apparent to me that the biggest problem with inspections was inspectors who checked what was easy to check instead of what was really important.  In civilian life the problem was a tad less obvious but every bit as real.  When I worked for a corporation, management was briefly into "management by objectives."  You set goals and got rewarded on whether you met them.  The key to success was setting modest goals; setting ambitious goals meant no bonus.

In terms of advocacy skills, the best trial lawyer wins the toughest cases, not necessarily the most cases.  If the manager assigns the toughest cases to the best trial lawyers and gives the easy ones to the rookies, as he should, the rookie might well have a better win rate than the star.

In addition, prosecutors are different from other trial lawyers.  It's not just about winning.  It's about justice.  Two defendants who have committed the same offense may be significantly different in what they deserve.  Offering a plea deal might be the right thing to do in one case and very wrong in another, and the difference might have nothing to do with likelihood of winning at trial.  Giving a financial incentive to take the easier case to trial places financial incentive at odds with ethical duty, always a bad idea.  Ms. Chambers says she will count on the prosecutors' integrity and her authority to grant exemptions to deal with this aspect of the problem.  Perhaps that will work, but perhaps not. 

In a job this complex with this many unquantifiable factors, the decision of who is the better performer must necessarily be based on judgment, not numbers.  There is no getting around it.

Thanks to Doug Berman for the link.

* The district is four counties southeast of Denver.


As a prosecutor myself, all I can say is that I'm astonished at what a spectacularly bad idea this is.

I'm a defense later now but I used to be a prosecutor. I agree with notablogger. This is a stupendously bad idea for all the reasons cited.

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