Post and Gazette misled on Ritter's plea-bargain rate

Recent articles in The Denver Post and The Gazette of Colorado Springs repeated Republican attacks on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter's plea-bargaining rate as Denver district attorney without noting that Ritter's rate was similar to the national average as well as those of other Colorado prosecutors.

Recent articles in The Denver Post and The Gazette of Colorado Springs repeated Republican attacks on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter's plea-bargaining rate as Denver district attorney without noting -- as both papers have in the past -- that Ritter's rate was similar to the national average as well as those of other Colorado prosecutors.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez's campaign and the Republican-backed Trailhead Group repeatedly have criticized Ritter's 97 percent plea-bargaining rate. As Colorado Media Matters has noted, according to data from the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, 95 percent of state court felony convictions, as well as 96 percent of federal criminal convictions, are obtained through plea agreements.

In a September 11 “Ad Watch” analysis by staff writer Chris Frates, the Post noted that an anti-Ritter television attack ad sponsored by Trailhead states that “Ritter plea-bargained 97 percent of all cases.” Frates's analysis provided no context for this statement, noting only that "[a]s district attorney from 1993 to 2005, Ritter resolved 97 percent of all cases by reaching guilty-plea agreements, rather than going to trial."

In addition to the “Ad Watch” analysis, the Post reported September 10 that before a gubernatorial debate in Grand Junction, “Beauprez supporters wore black-and-white striped inmate jumpsuits and held signs that read 'felons for Ritter' and 'hugs for thugs.' ” The article, by staff writer Karen E. Crummy, noted that “Republicans have criticized the former district attorney for his record on plea bargaining” but provided no further context.

Similarly, in a September 11 article about voter opinions of candidates and issues in the upcoming election, The Gazette of Colorado Springs reported that one voter “said he likes Democrat Bill Ritter's background as a Denver prosecutor, but he doesn't like the fact that Ritter's office plea-bargained 97 percent of cases under his tenure.” The Gazette did not inform readers that Ritter's plea-bargain rate was similar to that of other prosecutors.

By contrast, a September 2 Rocky Mountain News analysis of the Trailhead TV ad noted, “Ritter did plea-bargain 97 percent of all cases, a figure that is in line with the national average of 95 percent.”

At the local level, a September 1 KUSA 9News “Truth Test” analyzing the same anti-Ritter television ad reported that “district attorney offices throughout the [Denver] metro area reported similar plea-bargain figures, in the low-to-mid-90 percent range. The lack of courts, prosecutors and increased number of cases are to blame.” The same 9News analysis also reported, “In Arapahoe County where Republican Carol Chambers is the District Attorney, the office had roughly 4,000 criminal cases filed last year and 120 went to trial. That means Chambers, who supports Ritter's opponent, Republican Bob Beauprez, also plea-bargained 97 percent of her cases.”

A September 7 KCNC CBS4 “Reality Check” analysis of the anti-Ritter television attack ad also found that Trailhead's statement about Ritter's plea-bargain “needs some context.” According KCNC's analysis, Ritter's rate is “comparable” to the national average:

The claim is true, but needs some context. All district attorneys plea bargain the vast majority of their cases. There's not enough prosecutorial and jail resources to send every case to trial. In many cases, plea bargains result in jail or prison time that is satisfactory to the victims as well as the interests of justice, without incurring the expense of a trial. According to the U.S. Justice Department crime statistics, the national plea bargain average is about 95 percent. In that context, Ritter's plea bargain numbers are comparable.

In previous articles, The Post and The Gazette did provide this context. In a July 27 article about Trailhead's radio ads attacking Ritter's record on crime, The Gazette of Colorado Springs reported, "[t]he Department of Justice reports that 95 percent of state felony convictions are obtained through plea agreements."

Reporting on the first gubernatorial debate, The Denver Post noted August 11, “During his 12-year tenure as district attorney, his office plea-bargained 97 percent of the cases it handled. In 2002, 95 percent of the convictions in the nation's largest counties were the result of plea bargains, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.” However, two earlier Post articles (here and here) describing attacks on Ritter's plea-bargain rate did not include this information.

From the September 11 Denver Post “Ad Watch” analysis:

The message: When he was Denver district attorney, Bill Ritter plea-bargained 97 percent of all cases, including those involving sex offenders and murderers.

[...]

Fact: As district attorney from 1993 to 2005, Ritter resolved 97 percent of all cases by reaching guilty-plea agreements, rather than going to trial.

From the September 10 Denver Post article by Karen E. Crummy, “Rivals Go Into Attack Mode” :

There was also a bit of showmanship before the debate. Ritter showed up on a firetruck, and Beauprez supporters wore black-and-white striped inmate jumpsuits and held signs that read “felons for Ritter” and “hugs for thugs.”

Republicans have criticized the former district attorney for his record on plea bargaining.

From the September 11 Gazette of Colorado Springs article by Ed Sealover, “Decisions hard even with firm opinions” :

In the case of the governor's race, these beliefs make picking a favorite harder. Eric said he likes Democrat Bill Ritter's background as a Denver prosecutor, but he doesn't like the fact that Ritter's office plea-bargained 97 percent of cases under his tenure.