Plea Tracker: What the Wilson Center Hopes to Learn from Plea Negotiations

Satana Deberry speaking at Vanguard Event in October 2019

By Elizabeth Garabedian

DURHAM, NC – Durham County (NC) District Attorney Satana Deberry and Berkshire County (MA) District Attorney Andrea Harrington have partnered with the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law to help design and participate in the center’s Plea Tracker Project.

The Wilson Center has developed the Plea Tracker to collect extensive data on the individual components that factor into case outcomes. By participating in this project, the Durham and Berkshire County district attorney offices will be offering the researchers exclusive access to information about plea negotiations in criminal cases.

Plea agreements make up over 90 percent of the court’s final determination in criminal cases, but there has been little academic research done to fully understand the intricacies of these agreements.

The purpose of this yearlong study is to gather data and analyze patterns and sequences in criminal cases to better understand the process prosecutors use when determining a plea agreement, said Wilson Center Research.

Prosecutors participating in this project will complete an online form specifically designed for their DA’s office, after the plea deal has been negotiated and is finalized. The customization of these online forms will extend to jurisdiction, staff resources and practices in order to augment the value of the results for both parties.

Prosecutors play an integral role in the judicial system with their ability to use discretion in deciding how an individual will be charged and whether or not those charges will be prosecuted or dismissed along the way, Wilson Center maintains.

But despite the complex nature of plea bargaining, only a small number of law offices have employed methods to evaluate the effect of the agreements.

Will Crozier, the Wilson Center Research Director, explained during a press conference last week: “The window they are giving us into their cases has the potential to vastly improve how the justice system works, both in their offices and elsewhere. We’re really lucky to have them as research partners.”

Participating prosecutors will also be asked to provide basic case information and report what aspects of the case they consider throughout the phases of the plea recommendation process, including the victim’s preferred result.

Additionally, to gain a better understanding of all the contributing factors in a case, the demographics of defendants and victims, along with risk assessment and the availability of treatment programs will be analyzed, explained Wilson Center Research.

Through the data collected, the Plea Tracker will monitor prosecutors’ procedures and hold them accountable by determining any racial inequalities or inconsistencies in cases. With incarceration rates in the U.S. climbing, this technology could serve an important role in improving policies and outcomes within the legal system, maintains the Duke law project.

The program is expected, the center said, to enhance the transparency of participating district attorney offices by measuring outcomes and collecting information from cases to help deliver the best possible results for all parties involved in criminal proceedings.

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry explained that “The Plea Tracker helps our office to ensure that achieving fairness and equity – rather than pursuing the highest possible charges and sanctions regardless of the costs to our community – are the starting point for resolving each case.”

The Plea Tracker provides a unique opportunity to study the inner workings of this process and gain a comprehensive insight to this aspect of the legal system.

“The lessons learned from this project will undoubtedly have an impact on our understanding of how justice is negotiated, and I think will result in a better understanding of how progressive prosecution can improve the criminal justice system,” said Will Crozier during the project press conference.

The prosecuting offices will use the data collected from this project as a model for future policies and decisions, with the goal of implementing evidence-based prosecution strategies and help address areas in need of reform within the legal system and create a more equitable institution, the groups noted.

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