Fewer people faced prosecution in Sonoma County in the past year despite a reported uptick in certain kinds of crimes, possibly an indication that law enforcement is becoming more selective about expending resources in tough budget times.
During the one-year period ending Sept. 30, the District Attorney's Office filed 14,195 cases, down from 16,743 cases the year before. That's a decrease of more than 12 percent.
At the same time, the county's police agencies referred 21,360 cases to prosecutors for formal charging compared to 22,667 the year before — a reduction of nearly 6 percent.
Christine Cook, assistant district attorney, said the declines are due in part to cuts to the number of deputy prosecutors and police on the streets. She said her office is down 14 employees since 2009. The Sheriff's Office reports it lost 32 deputy positions in three years.
But Cook said the numbers also may reflect cost-saving efforts. Prosecutors are signing off on diversionary programs rather than charging minor crimes that take jail space.
If someone on probation for being drunk in public commits the same crime again, they'll be released on a violation of probation rather than being charged with a new crime, Cook said.
"I think it is safe to say we're trending toward more diversion," Cook said. "As a result of realignment we're considering how best to be efficient while seeking justice," a reference to the state's decision to send some offenders to county jurisdiction rather than to state prison or parole status.
Defense lawyers said prosecutors appear more careful about cases they pursue so they don't risk dismissals.
"They are definitely being more discriminating in what they file," Santa Rosa attorney Steve Turer said.
Cook said it was "tighter filing standards" and a focus on more pressing issues such as gang violence and elder protection under District Attorney Jill Ravitch, who was elected in 2010.
"She's been emphasizing since the day she took office that she wants us to seek justice and that cases should be provable," Cook said.
Cook did not provide a breakdown of felony and misdemeanor cases. Also, she did not release conviction rate information covering the period since Ravitch was elected. She said that has been delayed by a backlog of requests to the court and problems validating accuracy of the data.
"We don't have statistics on outcomes," Cook said. "But our attorneys are doing a lot of great work."
Turer said the office is reluctant to share conviction statistics because they might show convictions are down.
Meanwhile, the decline in the number of charges filed comes as property crime increases in Santa Rosa and the unincorporated county and violent rises in some areas.
In the first six months of this year, property crime was up in the county by 18 percent and violent crime rose by 19 percent, Sheriff Steve Freitas said.
In Santa Rosa this year, violent crime decreased for the first eight months but property crime was up, police Chief Tom Schwedhelm said.
He did not have exact figures.
Freitas said fewer deputies are available to handle calls and initiate their own investigations. As a result, fewer cases are referred to the district attorney, he said.
"I have less cops so we're doing less proactive stuff," Freitas said. "It's less people out there to get drunk drivers."
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