NORRISTOWN - The scales of justice in Montgomery County are tipped heavily in favor of prosecutors trying to put crime suspects behind bars.
According to statistics compiled by the district attorney's office, prosecutors last year won 78 percent of all criminal cases that went to trial, before either a jury or a judge. Of the total 108 trials involving various misdemeanors and felonies last year, 84 resulted in guilty verdicts.
The statistics indicate that defendants who rolled the dice against prosecutors in 2003 by going to trial had only a 22 percent chance of being acquitted.
"That shows that when you commit a crime in Montgomery County and you get arrested, which you invariably will, the likelihood of being convicted is extremely strong," District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. said.
The trial conviction rate was 76 percent in 2002 and 84 percent in 2001.
Statistics for cases that were weighed by a jury of 12 citizens in 2003 show that there were 49 jury trials in county court and only 12 people were acquitted of the charges. That means prosecutors won convictions about 76 percent of the time when they battled their cases before juries.
In 2003, 59 cases were tried before judges, and 47 of those resulted in guilty verdicts, a conviction rate of 80 percent, according to the statistics.
While Castor believes the conviction rate for trials best reflects the efficiency of his office, he said last year's overall conviction rate, which includes guilty pleas, was a 97.6 percent - up from 96.9 percent in 2002.
"That means that two out of 100 people walked. I think that that's pretty good," Castor said.
Castor credited his staff of "seasoned" prosecutors, as well as the thoroughness and strength of police investigations, for the high conviction rate. He said prosecutors aren't afraid to go to trial.
The conviction rate statistics are significant, Castor said, because they can affect the entire judicial process. A high conviction rate creates more guilty pleas overall.
During 2003, judges accepted 4,547 guilty pleas.
If a defendant faces with the prospect of winning only 22 percent of the time, then that defendant is more willing to plead guilty, Castor said.
Defense lawyers like to know what their chances are of winning in a courtroom. Often, that's how lawyers decide what strategy to undertake - either go to trial or opt for a plea arrangement.
When defense lawyers have weak cases and are faced with statistics that show prosecutors consistently win guilty verdicts at trial, they're more likely to suggest their clients strike plea agreements under which some charges might be dropped.
Additionally, defendants who plead guilty are more likely to meet more merciful judges than are defendants who take the court's time and effort by forcing trials.
While the conviction rate remains high, the total number of cases disposed of by the courts annually has declined during the last three years. In 2003, judges and prosecutors disposed of 7,285 cases, down 865 cases or 10.6 percent from the 8,150 cases disposed of in 2002.
Castor speculated the decline is partially a result of officials having to acclimate themselves to the new method of listing and tracking cases that was implemented in 2001. Criminal cases are now assigned under an individual calendar system to individual judges, instead of a central listing system, and the judges keep track of their cases and now schedule pretrial conferences with lawyers.
Additionally, Castor said, there were seven murder trials last year and other cases that took more time to dispose of.
"That tells me that judges are unavailable for large blocks of time. When they're trying a case that takes two weeks, that's 10 court days that you're only getting rid of one case," Castor said, adding that he thinks the disposition rate will increase over the next several years.