Carol Chambers: Is bonus pay for felony convictions about justice, or just us?
News that Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers is paying bonuses to prosecutors who achieve a certain percentage of felony convictions at trial may be raising eyebrows among other DAs, but it's hardly a shocker to anyone who's followed Chambers' other efforts to turn her office into a conviction machine. When you're determined to throw the book -- and sometimes everything else in the room -- at miscreants of all stripes, why not dangle a bounty for those staffers who can nail the most scalps to the wall?
A leaked e-mail evidently led to this report in the Denver Post, detailing the incentive scheme Chambers adopted for her prosecutors last year: deputy DAs who take at least five cases to trial a year and hit a 70 percent conviction rate can earn a yearly bonus of a thousand bucks or so. Chambers defends the practice as a way of helping to keep the overall conviction rate in her jurisdiction -- which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Lincoln and Elbert counties -- in line with that of other large judicial districts.
Performance bonuses aren't inherently a bad idea, even in government work. At the same time, you expect prosecutors to make reasonable judgments about the cases they choose to take to trial and those they plea bargain. If they are pursuing cases where there isn't a strong likelihood of conviction, they probably belong in another line of work. And not much good can come out of a tangible financial motive to take a case to trial and wring a felony conviction out of it -- which is why other district attorneys aren't offering such incentives to their deputies.
The glaring problem with Chambers' scheme is that it requires an arbitrary number of cases to be taken to trial -- and equates success with a felony conviction, regardless of the circumstances. Sometimes facts come out in the course of an investigation, or even a trial, that demonstrate that justice and conviction are rather different matters.
But not in Chambers' world. Her obsession with conviction at all costs has led to a slew of questionable prosecutions, from the felony arson charges filed against two 11-year-old boys in cases where the evidence suggests a lack of intent to commit arson, to her penchant for filing habitual criminal charges against chronic but low-level offenders, resulting in long and costly sentences for petty criminals. It's led to her team being removed twice from a death-penalty case over alleged ethical violations; though a higher court reinstated them, the delays and missteps contributed to one conviction being overturned and another defendant acquitted.
Seriously. When was the last time you heard of a death-penalty defendant who was ultimately acquitted?
Conviction quotas have stirred ethical quagmires in other jurisdictions. In some extreme cases, the win-at-all-costs mentality has produced a nightmare of unintended consequences, including the wholesale release of people bum-rushed into prison. Taken in isolation, Chambers' modest bonuses for her most productive warriors may not seem like a big deal, but it's one more lubricant for the slippery slope her office has been hurtling down since her election.