County DA Office’s High Dismissal Rate, Low Conviction Rate Are A Bad Combination
“I honestly don’t agree with him in so many facets on what he discusses on what the job is – to advocate for policy changes. First and foremost, it’s to get convictions.”
We didn’t disagree with then-candidate Jason Schmidt about his view of the Chautauqua County District Attorney’s primary objective back in October 2020. Much like James Carville’s much-quoted advice to then-candidate Bill Clinton, “It’s the economy, stupid,” the district attorney’s job is to get convictions.
A couple of weeks ago The Post-Journal reported on the county’s embarrassingly low conviction rates. The county is tied for the second-lowest felony conviction rate in the state, trailing only Kings County’s 7.2% and tied with Bronx and Queens counties at 8.4%. It should go without saying those three counties have much higher populations than Chautauqua County.
Jason Schmidt, Chautauqua County district attorney, blamed discovery rules with the lower felony conviction rate, saying many cases were “time dead” due to the COVID-19 pandemic that closed courts and, when courts reopened, many cases couldn’t be prosecuted under the state’s speedy trial statutes. The statistics, however, tell a different story. The county’s dismissal rates the last two years — 21.2% and 25.2% — are noticeably higher than the two closest counties in population size — Oswego (5.2% and 7.6%) and Rensselaer (7.2% and 5.3%). Even more discouraging, of the 12 counties with higher dismissal rates than Chautauqua County, only three join Chautauqua County with dismissal rates higher in 2022 than they were in 2021 — Broome County, which is home to Binghamton; Monroe County, which is home to Rochester, and Niagara County.
That tells us that most counties are finding ways to decrease their dismissal rates while Chautauqua County and two of its fellow rural counties are not. And Broome (28.4% and 19.3%) and Monroe (19.9% and 25.8%) boast much higher felony conviction rates than Chautauqua County.
Three years ago, during a debate with The Post-Journal and Dunkirk OBSERVER, Schmidt said he didn’t see the need to lobby for further reforms to the state’s 2019 bail and discovery reforms.
“The fact of the matter is we have to live by the rules,” Schmidt said back in October 2020. “This is what we do all the time. We can’t complain about it. We just have to function and we have to keep moving forward.”
Those words may come back to bite the district attorney next year if Schmidt runs for re-election, because while other counties are finding ways to convict more people than Chautauqua County while at the same time finding ways to decrease dismissals that are influenced by state law that hamstrings district attorneys. Chautauqua County’s felony conviction trend has been going the wrong way since 2018.
It’s time for District Attorney Schmidt, in the words of candidate Schmidt, to go get convictions.