Skip to main content

Exploring New Ways To Measure A DA’s Job Performance

The Hall of Justice in downtown San Diego is pictured in this undated photo.

Photo by Milan Kovacevic

Above: The Hall of Justice in downtown San Diego is pictured in this undated photo.

The first time after Miriam Krinsky prosecuted a criminal in federal court, she was brought to tears. She remembers returning home and sobbing when her husband asked how the case went.

"He said, ‘I’m so sorry. You can’t win every case. You gave it your all,'" Krinsky said on Skype. "And I said, ‘You don’t understand ... We convicted.’"

The young offender in a large-scale drug conspiracy case was facing a mandatory minimum of 10 years, but Krinksy said his involvement in the crime was minimal and had been influenced by an elder family member. The former assistant U.S. attorney got the conviction but was conflicted over whether that meant success.

"I had that young prosecutor’s realization that what we do is incredibly impactful, and it wasn’t always the pursuit of justice," said Krinsky, who is based in Los Angeles.

RELATED: Summer Stephan Keeps Her Seat In San Diego County District Attorney Race

Now she’s counseling other prosecutors to look beyond conviction and incarceration rates with her nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution. She’s part of a new school of thinkers re-evaluating success in the prosecutor’s office. However, that can be difficult to measure and efforts are underway to improve it.

Krinsky pointed to Besiki Luka Kutateladze, an assistant professor at Florida International University's Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Video by Matt Bowler

Kutateladze is working with state and local prosecutors in four jurisdictions to identify new metrics and re-think how to use data the offices are already collecting. For example, Kutatetladze said the volume of case dismissals due to a lack of witness cooperation may show how well the community trusts the prosecutor's office.

"If over time, on a quarterly or monthly basis, we see an increase in the percentage of cases dismissed because of the victim or witness cooperation, it’s a clear indication that something else must get done in terms of community outreach or engagement," Kutateladze said on Skype.

He hopes to see the new indicators implemented at the four prosecutors' offices next year.

Melissa Labriola, senior social behavioral scientist for the think tank RAND Corp., said these sort of outcome-focused indicators are a shift from the traditional measurements, such as conviction rates and case processing time, but that this sort of research contributes to progress.

"I am a huge believer that the movement forward is movement," Labriola said in a phone interview.

Still, she said more familiar prosecutorial performance indicators play an important role. A 2007 study from the National District Attorneys Association found they can help determine how well an office achieves certain objectives — such as sentencing length for holding offenders accountable, case processing length for timely justice and rate of repeat offenders for reduced crime.

But Labriola said success is too subjective in order to definitively answer whether a prosecutor is doing a good job in office. However, she said tracking and reviewing data — regardless if it's based on traditional or innovative metrics — is crucial.

"Just knowing what’s going on in your office and whatever measures you’re collecting is a good thing. And then you can look at trends, and then you can see if there’s a difference. Some policy gets implemented, does that change your numbers?" she said.

Labriola said data can also help members of the public evaluate a prosecutor's office based on metrics they may prioritize.

A group based in Upstate New York is working to make this information readily available online. Measures for Justice plans to publish criminal justice data for every county in the country.

San Diego voters picked their new district attorney last week. But how can you tell if a prosecutor is doing a good job?

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.