Plea, or the “Whole System Collapses”

A conservative elected Republican prosecutor is the latest to weigh in on the importance of plea bargaining in the weeks following a special interest group’s efforts to smear Colorado gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter’s record while serving as Denver District Attorney.

This week, 4th Judicial District Attorney John Newsome said he is unsure, without statistical number crunching, exactly what his office’s track record is on its frequency of plea bargaining cases. But, he says, the practice is crucial in the criminal justice system.

“If you don’t have the ability to plea bargain, the whole system collapses,” said Newsome.  “We handled 50,000 cases in this office last year and if we didn’t have plea bargaining there wouldn’t be any cop on the street, there would be no courts, all the judges would be doing nothing but criminal cases – there’s simply not enough physical space, time or hours in the day or weeks in the year. Physically you couldn’t do it.”

Newsome, whose office district incorporates El Paso and Teller counties, was elected in 2004, following the tenures of former DA’s Jeanne Smith and Colorado’s Attorney General John Suthers, who is currently running for his first full term in office.

Last month the Trailhead Group, a 527 which receives funding and support from powerful Republicans including Gov. Bill Owens and beer magnate Pete Coors, set off a firestorm when it started running radio ads attacking Ritter’s record as Denver’s District Attorney.

The ads, clearly designed to paint Ritter as soft on crime, cited his record of routinely using plea bargains to resolve criminal cases. Some mainstream media outlets merely regurgitated Trailhead’s statistics, without noting that such plea bargaining is commonplace.

For his part, Ritter, who served from 1993 to 2005, has touted his average conviction rate as over 90 percent; on Friday the Denver Post reported that Department of Justice records show the Denver DA’s conviction rate in 2001 was 95 percent, compared to 82 percent in El Paso County’s 4th Judicial District.

4th Judicial DA spokeswoman Lisa Kirkman cautioned against tossing out such blanket statistics without putting them into perspective – or risk apples-to-oranges comparisons, which can be misleading. There are, she notes, felony conviction rates, misdemeanor conviction rates, internal statistics, those kept by the Colorado Department of Corrections, and so on.

“There are a million different ways that things are kept track of,” Kirkman said. “In addition, some things differ from some years.”

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