Some jurisdictions use performance measures for various departments to help determine the extent to which taxpayer funds are accomplishing their intended purpose.

A 2006 Texas Public Policy Foundation report called for measures based on results, not on “pure activity and volume measures such as numbers of applications processed, the number of individuals served by a program, complaint volume, and so on.”

With that in mind, how should prosecutors’ performance be measured? In San Bernardino County, California, one of their two performance measures for the district attorney’s office is the percent of felony cases resulting in a prison sentence. Is their goal of 33 percent necessarily justice? Violent felons going to prison certainly may be, but, apart from the cost, does imprisoning first-time drug possession offenders alongside violent criminals enhance public safety? Similarly, Johnson County, Kansas uses total prison and jail time obtained as one of their measures.

The most traditional district attorney performance measures are the number of cases processed, convictions, and conviction rate. For example, among the four measures used by Fort Bend County, Texas are felony and misdemeanor dispositions. Similarly, the measures in Dallas County focus on the number of filings and dispositions. These volume measurements are of little value, since more cases may simply reflect an increase in crime.

Dan Conley, the district attorney in Boston, notes a prosecutor’s job is not simply to obtain convictions, but “to seek the truth and achieve justice.” A good place to start is achieving justice for victims, which can be measured by restitution obtained and victim satisfaction. A report by the National District Attorneys Association advocates such measures, though it also endorses measures such as convictions and incarceration. If performance measures and office culture emphasize convictions, why would a prosecutor refer a case to victim-offender mediation even though research shows it increases restitution and reduces costs?

As counties tighten their belts, measures for prosecutors’ performance should emphasize maximizing the use of every dollar to enhance public safety and outcomes for victims.

– Marc Levin