A conviction rate is a number, usually presented as a percentage, that indicates how frequently arrests in a given community lead to actual criminal charges. In most countries, being arrested simply means that one has been charged with a crime. Most arrestees appear before a court, which determines whether the arrest should lead to a criminal conviction. A conviction rate indicates how frequently arrests ultimately led to convictions within the span of a certain time window.
Conviction rates are typically broken down by jurisdiction — that is, by city, state, or country. Individual courts and court systems may publish their own independent conviction rates for various crimes, too. Regardless of the setting, conviction rates are not usually presented as universal rates, but rather as rates within a certain category of crimes. It is common for a government entity or court system to publish its homicide conviction rate separate from its drug infraction, kidnapping, or drunk driving conviction rates, for example.
Judges and prosecutors often isolate their own individual conviction rates as well for comparison and other purposes. Rates for these figures, who are government employees and civil servants, are also typically matters of public interest. Conviction rates can be used as one measurement of how effective a court or judicial system is. The number of convictions handed down by a judge can indicate how likely that judge is to convict an arrestee in a similar case, for instance. The relative strength or weakness of a prosecutor’s conviction record can be similarly be a sign of how effectively he or she is protecting the community.
Extremes on either end of the conviction rate spectrum generally attract attention. Courts or judges with near-perfect conviction rates are often perceived as being harsh, often unnecessarily so. On the other hand, conviction rates hovering around 50 percent or less are often questioned as indicating a court’s inability to properly or routinely administer justice. A prosecutor is usually the only person for whom a perfect conviction rate is nothing but positive.
Only criminal cases can end in convictions, so it follows that conviction rates pertain only to criminal law matters. There has to be an arrest to be a conviction, and people are only arrested for criminal acts. Statistics like the number of times traffic stops result in tickets or the number of copyright infractions that lead to fines do not count towards a community or judge’s conviction rate, because they are civil offenses.