Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Chronicle Questioned about Its Numbers Was the San Francisco D.A.'S Record Misrepresented?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Chronicle Questioned about Its Numbers Was the San Francisco D.A.'S Record Misrepresented?

Article excerpt

When the San Francisco Chronicle reviewed the record of District Attorney Terence Hallinan, who is facing re-election in November, the newspaper zeroed in on Hallinan's conviction rate one of the most telling statistics of a prosecutor's effectiveness.

On the face of it, the district attorney's record looked poor, according to a lengthy Chronicle story by veteran reporter Bill Wallace that ran Sept. 2. Wallace wrote that Hallinan's conviction rate was a dismal 32%, a far cry from the state average of 68.5%.

The piece also compared Hallinan's numbers individually against other large California counties, such as Los Angeles and San Diego, which boasted rates of 69% and 59%, respectively.

'Hallinan ranks dead last among California's 58 county prosecutors,' the article's lead stated, 'winning convictions in less than a third of the criminal cases lodged with his office last year.'

But, while the piece drew praise from some for laying out Hallinan's record for scrutiny, it also raised complaints from others who accused the Chronicle of failing to tell the entire story.

Among the critics was the alternative San Francisco Bay Guardian, a Hallinan supporter, which published a counter-attack in its Sept. 8 issue that blasted its daily competitor for basing its story on the number of convictions vs. the number of arrests.

That ratio, the Guardian contended, does not take into account variables such as cases the district attorney chooses not to prosecute and cases that are subject to other programs, including mediation, drug courts, and community service. The alternative newspaper argued that the conviction rate should be based solely on those cases that are brought to trial, a statistic that would give Hallinan a conviction rate of 90% for 1998.

'The Chronicle story suggests that hundreds of hardened criminals are going unpunished on Hallinan's watch,' said the Guardian story, by reporter A. Clay Thompson. 'In fact, the paper has vastly inflated the number of cases that fall through the [district attorney's] net.'

The Chronicle's Wallace whose story also examined several individual cases to show how defendants avoided jail time or stiffer penalties, and stated that Hallinan has a higher conviction rate once cases get to court defended his approach, saying the methodology used was fair.

'No one has said the statistics are wrong, just that I misinterpreted them,' said Wallace. 'It's clear that they don't understand the numbers.'

But Thompson said the interpretation is key, especially when the district attorney is employing other methods of dispensing with cases.

'[Wallace] didn't go in-depth on what they [the numbers] meant,' he said. …

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