I’m trying to figure out what the criminal justice system in California looks like. Basic facts are often overlooked or taken for granted when reading about the field. And I’d also like to know the answers to questions like, “If I’m arrested, what is the chance that I will be convicted, all things being equal?” I found Crime in California, a report published by the Department of Justice in 2013. The document is mostly tables, many of which include the caveat “caution should be used when interpreting this information because final dispositions are underreported.” It’s unclear what that means because the text portion is so cursory. It includes sentences like “Crime is down in California.” The tables themselves paint a very different picture than what I expected. Based on what I see on television, I would expect the acquittal rate to be less than the conviction rate but in the same ballpark. The number of arrests become filed charges that result in conviction is around 70%.
The conviction rate for property offenses is a sky-high 77%, while the conviction rate for violent offenses is just 60%. The DA does not file a complaint on 25% of violent offense arrests, much higher than for any other category of crime. This may help explain the low conviction rate, since the dismissal and acquittal rate is a relatively normal 10%.
The total number of felony arrests that become filed charges that result in dismissal or acquittal was 11.9% in 2013. That’s quite a bit less than I would have guessed, if I were taking uninformed stabs in the dark, which is one of my favorite things to do. Based on the data, you have a 3.4% chance of just being released by the police if you are arrested. For example, the police may test the blood of a DUI arrestee and find that she is under the limit. Or they may interrogate someone and become convinced that she didn’t do it. The DA rejects another 14.8% of cases they receive. Generally, cases are rejected on the grounds that there is insufficient evidence, but there may be other reasons, such as search and seizure violations by police that would render evidence inadmissible. If the DA files on an arrestee, there is an 11.9% chance that the case will either be dismissed by the court or result in acquittal. The court may dismiss a case after a successful suppression motion, if the complaint fails to state a violation of the law, or for any number of other reasons. The DA may even dismiss a complaint if she feels it is not proper to prosecute it.
Up until now we have been considering dismissals and acquittals together. But the thing that really surprised me was the acquittal rate considered alone.
There were only 511 felony arrests that resulted in acquittal in 2013, out of 305,503 total arrests. That means that if you are arrested, there is a .2% chance that you will eventually be acquitted. That’s not 20%, that’s .2% or 1 in 500. People are just not going through the system and getting acquitted. It’s not part of the experience.