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Convictions versus Conviction Rates: The Prosecutor's Choice

  • Eric Rasmusen
  • Manu Raghav
  • Mark Ramseyer

It is natural to suppose that a prosecutor's conviction rate--the ratio of convictions to cases prosecuted--is a sign of his competence. Prosecutors, however, choose which cases to prosecute. If they prosecute only the strongest cases, they will have high conviction rates. Any system that pays attention to conviction rates, as opposed to the number of convictions, is liable to abuse. As a prosecutor's budget increases, he allocates it between prosecuting more cases and putting more effort into existing cases. Either can be socially desirable, depending on particular circumstances. We model the tradeoffs theoretically in two models, one of a benevolent social planner and one of a prosecutor who values not just the number of convictions but the conviction rate and unrelated personal goals. We apply the model to U.S. data drawn from county-level crime statistics and a survey of all state prosecutors by district. Conviction rates do have a small negative correlation with prosecutorial budgets, but conditioning on other variables in regression analysis, higher budgets are associated both with more prosecutions and higher conviction rates. Copyright 2009, Oxford University Press.

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Article provided by Oxford University Press in its journal American Law and Economics Review.

Volume (Year): 11 (2009)
Issue (Month): 1 ()
Pages: 47-78

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Handle: RePEc:oup:amlawe:v:11:y:2009:i:1:p:47-78
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  1. Baker, Scott & Mezzetti, Claudio, 2001. "Prosecutorial Resources, Plea Bargaining, and the Decision to Go to Trial," Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, Oxford University Press, vol. 17(1), pages 149-67, April.
  2. Richard T. Boylan, 2005. "What Do Prosecutors Maximize? Evidence from the Careers of U.S. Attorneys," American Law and Economics Review, Oxford University Press, vol. 7(2), pages 379-402.
  3. Richard T. Boylan, 2004. "Do the Sentencing Guidelines Influence the Retirement Decisions of Federal Judges?," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 33(1), pages 231-253, 01.
  4. J. Mark Ramseyer & Eric Rasmusen, 1999. "Why Is the Japanese Conviction Rate So High?," Law and Economics 9907001, EconWPA.
  5. Miceli, Thomas J, 1990. "Optimal Prosecution of Defendants Whose Guilt Is Uncertain," Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, Oxford University Press, vol. 6(1), pages 189-201, Spring.
  6. Landes, William M, 1971. "An Economic Analysis of the Courts," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 14(1), pages 61-107, April.
  7. George L. Priest & Benjamin Klein, 1984. "The Selection of Disputes for Litigation," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 13(1), pages 1-56, January.
  8. Boylan, Richard T, 2004. "Salaries, Turnover, and Performance in the Federal Criminal Justice System," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 47(1), pages 75-92, April.
  9. Snyder, Edward A, 1990. "The Effect of Higher Criminal Penalties on Antitrust Enforcement," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 33(2), pages 439-62, October.
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