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Duke Law project to investigate disparities in plea bargaining outcomes, encourage 'focused, equitable' decision making

Chronicle File Photo | Duke Law School
Chronicle File Photo | Duke Law School

Duke Law School’s Wilson Center of Science and Justice has formed a partnership to study uncharted territory: collecting data on plea bargaining negotiations. 

The research study—called The Plea Tracker Project—involves a team of graduate researchers at Duke Law as well as District Attorneys Santana Deberry of Durham County and Andrea Harrington of Berkshire County, MA.

The absence of publicly available data on a phenomenon that accounts for 90 to 95% of criminal case resolutions has left prosecutors, defendants and victims in doubt about the outcomes of their cases. 

The study investigates racial, socioeconomic and regional disparities in plea bargaining outcomes—the defendant’s charges and sentencing—along with the degree to which victims are involved in the negotiation process and the availability of legal recourse and counsel for the defendant.

The team will aggregate data from dozens of cases over the course of a year before a comprehensive report on the two offices’ practices is published. 

“The Plea Tracker Project, for us, is an opportunity to look into our work and see if we are actually living up to what we’re saying we’re doing,” Deberry said.

Plea bargains expedite the resolution of criminal cases by waiving the lengthy trial process upon arraignment: a hearing where a judge informs the defendant of the charges filed against them and asks for how they plea.

By pleading guilty, the prosecutor may grant the defendant more lenience, either by imposing a lighter sentence, assigning lesser charges or dismissing charges altogether. 

“I think part of the reason why this data hasn’t been collected before is because it’s a really sophisticated project, the information is hard to collect and you need researchers with the expertise on how to set it up and interpret it,” Harrington said. 

Second-year doctoral student Catherine Grodensky, one of Wilson Center’s student researchers, attributed the scarcity of plea bargaining data to the fact that “so much emphasis is put on trials and on the Constitution.” 

“Law school is spent on teaching law students various complicated procedures about trials, which is kind of how things are designed to work in the court system,” Grodensky said, noting that plea negotiations deviate from the prevailing conception of "standard" courtroom procedure.

While both district attorneys’ offices mobilized informal data collection initiatives in January 2019, the project officially commenced in April 2020. To generate raw data prosecutors participating in the study must fill out a digital form with designated metrics. 

In addition, prosecutors are documenting the variables considered during each phase of the plea agreement. The Wilson Center’s research team is also conducting individual interviews with prosecutors.

In Berkshire County, Harrington is zeroing in on a particular aspect of the data: how her office is communicating with victims, if at all, during plea bargain negotiations. 

Adele Quigley-McBride, a postdoctoral associate at Duke Law, is working with Harrington to collect and analyze descriptive data on the subject. Her work has already shown that the Berkshire County district attorneys’ office is “doing a good job of communicating with victims and keeping them involved,” Harrington said. 

Deberry is primarily interested in identifying socioeconomic, regional and racial disparities in plea bargaining outcomes. Taking into account the egregiousness of the offense, the type of legal counsel involved and whether the defendant is a first-time offender, the prosecutors’ reports will enable her office to assess such disparities. 

“What prompted me to participate in the project is that we’ve been trying to hold ourselves up to be an office that is focused, equitable in our decision-making and letting things like race and socioeconomic status to be less salient in our decision making,” Deberry said.     

While the team is still in the preliminary stages of data collection, Deberry and Harrington have observed that the increased scrutiny over plea bargaining negotiations in their offices has led to more conscientious decision making among prosecutors.

“I learned from researchers that there is something called friction. That’s when, for example, for prosecutors, just the act of collecting data makes them more thoughtful about the decisions that they’re making,” Harrington said. 

“I think the one thing that we especially have noticed is that being watched influences the prosecutors’ behavior,” Deberry said.

To expand the project's scope, Duke’s researchers may obtain data from the defense side and record the frequency with which judges field prosecutors’ advice. They are currently augmenting their research to cover a District Attorney’s office in Provo, Utah. While the official time stamp on the project is one year, longitudinal data may be collected for posterity. 

“The way I’m looking at it, this is something that we are implementing with the office that will be ongoing … It’s just as much for research as it is a sustainable tool that an office can use to evaluate its own performance,” Grodensky said.


Halle Friedman | Associate News Editor

Halle Friedman is a Trinity junior and an associate news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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