Sustained Outrage

Tracking felonies

Sometimes, covering crime and courts, the media gets so focused on a particular case that we forget to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Thankfully, reports like this study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics provide a compelling snapshot of how felonies work their way through the justice system.

The report, Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties, 2006, looked at the 58,100 felony cases initiated in May 2006. Here are some of the key findings:

— Since 1990, violent crimes have inched downward, from 27 percent of felonies to 23 percent in 2006. The percentage charged with drug crimes have gone up, from 34 percent in 1990 (with a quick dip to 30 percent in 1992) to 37 percent in 2006. Property crimes have also gone down, from a high of 35 percent in 1994 to 29 percent in 2006.

— Defendants seem to be getting older. In 1990, only 10 percent of defendants were 40 or older, and that has risen steadily to 25 percent in 2006. The percentage of defendants under 25 has decreased, from 40 percent in 1990 to 33 percent in 2006.

— More defendants have criminal histories and convictions. In 1992, 55 percent of defendants had a previous felony arrest, compared with 64 percent in 2006. Those with prior felony convictions rose from 36 percent in 1990 to 43 percent in 2006.

— Almost one in three of the defendants charged, 31 percent, were already involved with the criminal justice system, either by being in custody, awaiting trial, or on probation or parole, when they were arrested on the new offense.

— Roughly three out of five defendants charged were released before the case was resolved. Of those, 33 percent engaged in some sort of pretrial misconduct. People facing drug offenses were more likely to have issues during their release (37 percent) than those with pending violent felony charges (26 percent).

The study also looked at typical outcomes for 100 defendants facing charges. Of those, 42 would remain in custody pending trial, while 58 would be released. Eight typically enter into a pretrial diversion with prosecutors, 23 have their cases dismissed, and 69 are prosecuted. Of those 69, four typically go to trial and 65 plead guilty. Of the trials, three result in convictions, and one ends in an acquittal. Of the 68 defendants who are convicted, 56 end in felony convictions, with 11 resulting in misdemeanor convictions. Two dozen will be sentenced to prison, two dozen sentenced to jail, 17 put on probation, and three have other sentences.

Let’s think about that: 95 percent of the convictions come from guilty pleas. Of those people who were convicted, 72 percent were convicted on the original charge for which they were arrested. Seven out of 10 of those convicted ended up incarcerated, either in prison or jail.

Remember, the study only looked at the 75 biggest counties in America, which naturally include some pretty big cities. At 191,000 people, West Virginia’s biggest county, Kanawha, doesn’t even come close. (El Paso County, Texas, is #75, and it has 750,000 residents.) But it still provides an interesting window into how felony cases are handled.

So, what kind of offenses were most likely to end in conviction? The answer may surprise you.

Driving related felonies resulted in convictions 85 percent of the time, edging out murder charges, 81 percent of which ended in convictions. Drug trafficking was 74 percent, fraud 64 percent, and assault was the lowest at 54 percent.