A state’s attorney’s effectiveness can be measured in several ways, but when it comes to plea deals, experts agree: You can’t count on the numbers.
A state’s attorney’s effectiveness can be measured in several ways, but when it comes to plea deals, experts agree:
You can’t count on the numbers.
Still, numbers are the focus of a heated battle between Boone County State’s Attorney Jim Hursh and his challenger for the Republican nomination, Michelle Courier, in Tuesday’s primary election.
Specifically, Courier has challenged the number of plea bargains she says Hursh has accepted for some of the most serious felony charges. Her numbers have surfaced in newspaper ads and in a Jan. 17 debate.
Courier has said only 32.6 percent of the Class X felony charges Hursh has filed have resulted in Class X convictions. But a Register Star analysis of the Class X felonies resolved during Hursh’s tenure uncovered different numbers.
Courier said only 28 of 86 Class X felonies resolved between Aug. 1, 2004, and Aug. 1, 2007, were adjudicated as Class X.
The newspaper’s analysis, which examined cases filed from the time Hursh was appointed on July 30, 2004, through last week, showed that 47 percent of defendants charged with Class X felonies retained that charge when their names are counted as one case, even though they may have more than one related charge.
When counting by case number — which may include the same defendant charged multiple times — the percentage drops to 40 percent.
Despite the numbers, legal experts agree that percentages are the wrong way to measure a prosecutor’s performance.
“The standard, in my perspective, is common sense,” said Professor Steve Beckett, director of trial advocacy for the University of Illinois College of Law. “These cases just have too many variables.”
Each case should be judged individually, Beckett said.
Plea bargaining can be an effective way to ensure prison time, he said, but how a state’s attorney handles a case is based on his or her own philosophy. It’s up to voters to decide which philosophy they like best.
Some prosecutors believe in filing only those charges that can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, he said, while others file the most severe possible charges in every case.
“The only problem is that avoids common sense and the fact that we don’t have enough court time to try all these cases,” he said.
But some prosecutors use severe charges as leverage for a plea bargain, said Al Alschuler, law professor at Northwestern University School of Law.
“It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the state’s attorney is soft on crime,” he said.
However, Courier believes Hursh’s office is letting too many felons off the hook.
“You have an excellent Belvidere City Police Department. They do great investigations. I don’t see them coming for a Class X felony charge without having evidence to substantiate it,” Courier said. “The low conviction rate on Class X felony charges is indicative of either weak prosecution of cases or the reckless approval of Class X felony charges.”
Hursh said charges are based on what he believes can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, but cases sometimes change as the investigation continues. Plea agreements then become an effective way to ensure prison time without risk.
“It’s guaranteed conviction, no cost of a jury trial and ... they are going to spend time in prison and have a felony on their record,” Hursh said.
On average, someone charged with a Class X felony — regardless of their plea — is sentenced to 6 years in prison, according to the Register Star’s analysis.
Justice, not convictions, is the goal and “No. 1 ethical duty of a state’s attorney,” Hursh said, and judging his effectiveness by reviewing numbers isn’t fair.
“I don’t walk around with a big chart that says we need to put this many people behind bars,” Hursh said.
Staff writer Kevin Haas can be reached at 815-544-3452 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: Candidates for the Boone County state’s attorney and county board District 1 seats will debate in a forum hosted by the Candlewick Lake Political Action Committee
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Candlewick Lake Recreation Center