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California DA Says Incarceration Rate a Measure of His Success – Despite Wrongful Convictions, Prosecutorial Misconduct

California DA Says Incarceration Rate a Measure of His Success – Despite Wrongful Convictions, Prosecutorial Misconduct

by Gary Hunter

Ed Jagels, District Attorney for Kern County, California, is concerned that his ratings have slipped from first to third. Not his ratings in the polls or even his popularity rating among members of the public; rather, Jagels is upset that two other California counties are sending more people to prison than his office.

“We tend to measure our performance by the per capita prison commitment rate,” he said. “We’ve always been at the top until the last three years.” Jagels has served as the county’s top prosecutor since 1983; he is also a former president and director of the California District Attorney’s Association.

Kern County topped the charts from 2000 to 2004, sending 31 per 10,000 citizens to state lockups. In 2007 that number dipped to 27.5 per 10,000.

Since 1983, California’s prison population has grown from 40,000 to 171,000. The estimated price tag for housing a state prisoner is about $46,000 per year; thus, Kern County alone costs taxpayers around $103.5 million annually. Nor does that price tag include the cost of incarcerating county jail prisoners.

Not everyone shares Jagels’ lock-em-up enthusiasm. “I certainly hope we’re not measuring success by the number of individuals we ship off to the gulag,” said Mark Arnold, a Kern County public defender.

Arnold observed that the get-tough imprisonment mentality has resulted in a stranglehold on state taxpayers, and questioned whether the $46,000 per prisoner could be better spent in other ways – such as treatment programs for drug offenders. More than 5,200 state prisoners come from Kern County. Of that number, 958, or over 18 percent, are serving time for simple drug possession. That’s over double the 8.3 percent average for the rest of the state.

John Savrnoch, chief assistant district attorney for Fresno County, measures his office’s success by the number of felony charges filed. “Our focus is, ‘Are we filing legitimate cases?’” he said. “We seek to maximize punishment for serious criminals.” Despite Savrnoch’s different philosophy, Fresno County surpassed Kern in 2007 and holds the number two incarceration rate with 28.2 per 10,000 citizens. Topping the list for 2007 was San Bernadino County, with 29.1 per 10,000.

Since 2000, Kern County has averaged a rate of over 30 per 10,000 every year except 2005 and 2007. The decline has Jagels concerned. “Judges are pleading cases out from under us,” he complained. He also suggested that years of locking up his fellow citizens had probably shrunk the “roll of felons” available to commit more crimes.

Jagels’ focus on maximizing incarceration rates has not been without controversy. Most disturbing was his prosecution of almost 50 people arrested in Bakersfield in the 1980’s as part of mass child molestation hysteria. Thirty were convicted or pleaded guilty; some received hundreds of years based solely on the false testimony of children who were allegedly coerced by overzealous law enforcement officers, social workers and prosecutors.

Eventually almost all of the children admitted they had not been molested, and all but five of the convictions were overturned. One of the defendants, John Stoll, had served 20 years before being exonerated in 2004. Jagels fought every case, insisting that the defendants were guilty despite evidence to the contrary.

The California Attorney General’s office investigated and accused Kern County prosecutors of misconduct, including withholding evidence. In 2005, Rolling Stone ran a detailed article on Jagels’ role in the prosecutions, describing him as “one of America’s most reckless prosecutors.” A 2008 documentary about the Bakersfield sex abuse cases, titled Witch Hunt, was produced and narrated by actor Sean Penn.

The county has paid out over $4 million in lawsuits stemming from the wrongful convictions. Stoll received $704,700 from the California Victim’s Compensation Board in 2006; he is also pursuing a federal lawsuit against the county. See: Stoll v. Kern County, USDC (ED Cal.), Case No. 1:05-cv-01059-OWW-SMS.

Evidently any convictions are good enough to boost Jagels’ incarceration rate statistics – even wrongful convictions. Regardless, locking up Kern County residents, whether innocent or not, hasn’t decreased Jagels’ popularity among voters. “He hasn’t been in office since Henry Ford developed the Model T because voters think he has a nice smile,” said Savrnoch. “The people of Kern County want a hard-ass as a DA.”

But as public defender Mark Arnold noted, this lock-em-up philosophy comes with “an enormous price tag.” And it’s a price tag not measured solely in dollars and cents. Just ask John Stoll, or any of the dozens of other innocent people who were wrongly convicted by Jagels.

Sources:,, Rolling Stone,,

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