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Letters to the Editor

The Recorder, April 25, 2008

Misdemeanor crimes erode our quality of life and are often a gateway to more serious offenses that jeopardize public safety. That's why I've made taking these offenses to trial and ensuring consequences for these behaviors a top priority of my office.

Since 2003 we've nearly tripled the number of misdemeanor cases taken to trial. These cases included many DUIs, assaults and street crimes like vandalism. Unfortunately, The Recorder attempted to calculate a trial conviction rate, but included mistrials and hung juries, results that are not final and should not be considered as wins or losses because those cases have yet to be fully adjudicated. Actually, the math is simple. There were 154 misdemeanor cases taken to trial in 2007 by my office that ended in a final disposition. Of those 154 trials, 110 resulted in a guilty finding, yielding a 71.4 percent misdemeanor trial conviction rate.

Putting the number of misdemeanor trials in context, my office handled more than 3,000 misdemeanor offenses last year and according to data from the Superior Court, secured convictions through negotiated pleas in 1,894 of them. In addition, the court also reports that we secured convictions in 4,961 felony cases. Eighty-one felonies went to trial and 78 percent of those resulted in convictions.

While I sympathize that caseloads have increased for the courts and other criminal justice agencies, including my own office, I make no apologies for the aggressive handling of criminal cases by the district attorney's office.

As district attorney I insist on consequences and accountability in our criminal justice system. It is no secret that since I took office, the DA's office has tightened its policies and made tougher the plea offers that we are willing to extend. If we cannot reach a plea agreement with defense attorneys which ensures sufficient consequences, then cases can and will go to trial.

Consider weapons cases. Before I took office, the average penalty for misdemeanor cases involving concealed, loaded firearms often resulted in sentences of no more than 10 days in county jail. I implemented a policy requiring a minimum of 90 days of jail time in these types of gun cases. That policy has met with resistance from defense attorneys and some judges, but I believe that it is essential to public safety to get illegal guns off our streets. As a result, an increasing number of misdemeanor gun cases have gone to trial. I am very proud of the work of the prosecutors in my office who secured convictions in 92 percent of all gun crimes last year.

It's natural that defense attorneys would advocate for more lenient treatment of their clients and understandable that judges are concerned about how to manage an increased criminal caseload in their courtrooms.

The reality is that the increased caseloads we are seeing are the result of tougher enforcement by the police department and my office. My office is working with the court and defense counsel to expedite case handling, but I will not give cases away at the expense of public safety.

 Kamala Harris, San Francisco

Editor's note: Kamala Harris is the San Francisco district attorney