Palm Beach County State Attorney’s conviction rates up

Nearly four years ago, as former state senator Dave Aronberg began mounting a campaign to snatch the top prosecutor’s job from a fellow Democrat, he showed anyone who was willing to listen a set of statewide statistics that cast Palm Beach County’s prosecutors as losers.

The statistics showed that the county’s State Attorney’s Office was successful in only about half of its misdemeanor cases and ranked among the lowest in the state in overall conviction rates.

This year, with Aronberg looking ahead to a 2016 reelection campaign, the most recent statistics from the Office of State Courts Administrator show the office has a conviction rate better than half the other circuits in the state.

The state numbers show the local conviction rates for felony and misdemeanor cases was 83.7 percent for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, a jump from the 58.5 percent combined rate four years ago.

“Numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they do tell a story,” Aronberg said. “I think the numbers do reflect better morale in the office, better education and training and a difference in the way we make decisions.”

But some critics say a change in the way prosecutors classify dropped charges has padded their numbers. Others say the numbers — primarily used to track judges’ caseloads statewide — are meaningless for determining how well prosecutors are doing.

Aronberg, however, attributes the increase to improvement in morale and changes he and his chief assistants have put in place.

Among the most successful is a DUI program that allows first-time offenders to plead to a minor driving charge and receive no jail time when they complete a special program that requires them to outfit their cars with an interlock device. Though a few defense attorneys have called the program expensive, more than 1,000 defendants have completed it in the past 18 months and kept DUI convictions off their records.

Prosecutors also started a similar program for people arrested on charges associated with domestic violence. It allows first time offenders to have their charges dropped in some cases if, among other requirements, people on both sides of the incident complete domestic violence prevention courses.

There are critics of that program as well, who say that making the fate of a defendant contingent on an alleged victim’s willingness to take a class is unfair.

The numbers have always been a concern for Aronberg, even before he was elected as Palm Beach County State Attorney in 2012.

A year earlier, when prospects were looking uncertain for Aronberg as he mounted a controversial challenge against fellow Democrat and sitting State Attorney Michael McAuliffe, Aronberg at times was in a small crowd of people who felt the numbers meant anything.

McAuliffe asserted that the state statistics were meaningless for grading state attorney’s offices because they were gathered to compare judicial circuits in terms of the time judges spend on cases. He also said many other circuits had a different way of classifying the cases they dropped, using the term “no file” instead of “nolle prosse” — a move that kept many of their essentially dropped cases out of the loss column.

Though there’s no difference in the effect of the two classifications, and many say it’s essentially the same thing, a “no file” generally means that prosecutors don’t believe there is enough evidence to charge someone with a crime while “nolle prosse” is a Latin term basically signifying an abandoned prosecution or the state’s refusal to pursue the charges further.

Had McAuliffe and Aronberg faced one another in a Democratic primary for the top prosecutor’s job, the incumbent would have made all those points. But it was a battle Aronberg ended up never having to face. McAuliffe left office in March 2012 for a job in the private sector.

Pete Antonacci, the interim replacement appointed by Florida Gov. Scott, listed improving the numbers as one of his first priorities. He noted the 52 percent misdemeanor conviction rate in 2009-2010 as particularly embarrassing, though he made clear he shared at least some of McAuliffe’s sentiments that the numbers were an incomplete reflection of how the offices ranked.

“Still, you really don’t want to be last place at anything,” Antonacci said then.

And by the time Antonacci finished McAuliffe’s term, more and more defense attorneys were complaining that Palm Beach County prosecutors were pushing forward cases that were overcharged and in some cases improperly charged. Antonacci attributed that to McAuliffe’s implementation of a system that allowed individual prosecutors to decide which criminal charges applied to their cases — a carryover from McAuliffe’s days as a federal prosecutor.

Antonacci brought most of the office back to the central system that McAuliffe’s predecessor, Barry Krischer, used. It involves a group of seasoned prosecutors deciding which charges fit a particular case before handing it off to the assigned prosecutor.

Aronberg kept that system in place, though some divisions in the office, such as the public integrity unit, still conduct their case intake processes individually.

Aronberg also encouraged more use of the no file system, though he says it wasn’t to boost numbers.

“I think it shows we’re doing more work on the front-end in looking at every case instead of moving forward and having to drop them later,” he said.

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