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Sonoma County's felony-arrest conviction rate dropped during District Attorney Jill Ravitch's first year in office but rebounded in the next 12 months, rising to the highest level in at least 10 years.

Statistics from the state Attorney General appear to paint a bright picture for Ravitch, who was elected in 2010 on her reputation as a tough trial lawyer.

After slipping to a three-year low of 66 percent in 2011, the conviction rate for those held on the most serious charges climbed to 70 percent in 2012, exceeding predecessor Stephan Passalacqua's high of 69.5 reached in 2009.

The increase, which surpassed the statewide rate of 68.5 percent, can be interpreted as a sign that Ravitch is being more selective about what cases to pursue. But whether the numbers add up to courtroom success is unclear.

Legal experts said the only true measure is trial convictions, which Ravitch has not released.

"Anything that points toward improvement is good but we can always do better," Ravitch said.

Overall, the number of felony arrests referred to the district attorney has declined.

In 2012, 4,866 people were held on felonies, a decrease of about 14 percent from the year before.

At the same time, Ravitch's office appears to have been more discriminating about choosing the cases to prosecute. Prosecutors rejected 13 percent of the cases in 2012.

By comparison, Passalacqua's office rejected 9 percent during his last year in office in 2010. The year before, he rejected 7 percent.

"You can't really knock her when at least the numbers show an improvement," said a frequent adversary, Santa Rosa criminal defense attorney Stephen Turer. "If it does have to do with being more selective, I can't really criticize it."

Ravitch was reluctant to draw conclusions from the Attorney General's report. She bashed Passalacqua during the 2010 election campaign for what she described as a poor conviction rate but has since backed off, saying the statistic isn't a reflection of performance.

Also, she questioned the Attorney General's numbers. She's charted a smaller reduction in overall arrests and said her office filed more felonies last year, not fewer.

She said her attorneys are directed to do more work at the front-end of cases, working with police on such things as search warrants and reviewing reports prior to filing charges.

"We are trying to be more proactive," Ravitch said. "It's a more selective approach in terms of integrity of investigations and strength of charges that can be brought."

The statistics came from Attorney General Kamala Harris' annual report on crime in California, which showed slight increases in violent and property crimes statewide but said the levels remained half of what they were 20 years ago.

Law enforcement agencies, district attorneys and courts supplied the information to the state Department of Justice.

One category — final dispositions of felony arrests — came with a caveat. Officials urged caution in interpreting the information because the data is under-reported.

Statewide, more than 295,000 people were arrested on felony charges in 2012 with 68.5 percent of those convicted of felonies or misdemeanors.

Of the 4,866 people brought in on felony charges in Sonoma County, prosecutors got 3,421 convictions and rejected 623 complaints. Also in 2012, charges against 754 people were dismissed.

By comparison, Passalacqua's office handled 5,967 felony arrests in 2010, his final year. Prosecutors got 4,050 convictions and didn't file complaints on 547 cases.

Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas said one of the reasons arrests were down is that there are fewer deputies on the streets because of budget cuts. He wouldn't comment on the number of cases rejected by the district attorney.

"The decision to file or not is entirely the purview of the D.A.," Freitas said.

Data for Lake and Mendocino counties showed fewer people arrested as well, and fewer convicted. In Mendocino County in 2012, 1,511 people were arrested on felony charges and 835 – or 55.3 percent — were convicted. Lake had 365 felony arrests and 171 convictions for a rate of 46.8 percent.

Mendocino County's assistant district attorney, Paul Sequeira, said felony arrest conviction rates don't mean much because the standard of proof is higher in court. Many people arrested on felonies are later charged with lesser crimes or dismissed, he said.

Sequeira said his office keeps statistics based on the number of complaints filed that shows a conviction rate of 87 percent in 2012 and and 88 percent in 2011.

(You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.)