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Study’s Data Show Racial Disparity in Plea Bargaining Outcomes

by Derek Gilna

The Spring 2017 issue of Justice Quarterly published a report titled “Race, Plea, and Charge Reduction: An Assessment of Racial Disparities in the Plea Process,” which explores the perceived discrepancy in the outcomes for criminal defendants in the plea bargaining process. According to the report, the “findings suggest that blacks, and black males in particular, are less likely to plea, and are expected to receive a lower value for their plea.”

The study examined 907 felony cases represented by public defenders in a circuit court in a large county in Florida. The 32-page report notes that “the growing recognition of the salience of prosecutorial discretion, attention to biases in the earlier phases of case processing is increasing.”  Authors Christi Metcalfe and Ted Chiricos explore the influence of race and sex not only in plea negotiations, but also in the “probabilities of a charge reduction,” an area that they note has been “under-examined by justice researchers.”

The research “demonstrates that, on average, whites have a significantly greater (a) probability of a charge reduction when they plead guilty and (b) estimated probability of a charge reduction if they were to be convicted at trial.” As a result, “pleading guilty increases the probability of a charge reduction by 50.1% for blacks, as opposed to 55.8% for whites.”

Although this slightly more than five percent differential may seem insignificant, when one considers the hundreds of thousands of prosecutions in the United States, the racial disparity that exists in correctional institutions becomes more understandable. The authors cite two studies to support their theory that “prosecutors...stereotype Black and Hispanic male offenders as ‘particularly predatory’ and ‘disposed to chronic criminal offending’ (Bridges and Steen, 1998, p.555)’ and to view female offenders—particularly those with child care responsibilities—in the opposite terms’ (Spohn and Beichner, 2000, p.179).”

The study also endorses the theory that even if the research is not conclusive in proving that plea and sentencing disparities based upon race exist, many defendants behave as though such biases do exist, reinforcing the effects of those disparities. “If plea bargaining is viewed as advantageous for its more lenient sentencing outcomes, it appears that black males, and to a lesser extent white males, are disadvantaged in a system that relies heavily on plea bargaining.” Numerous studies have shown that upwards of 95% of all convictions are the result of a guilty plea. 

Sources:, Metcalfe, Christi and Ted Chiricos. “Race, Plea, and Charge Reduction: An Assessment of Racial Disparities in the Plea Process.” Justice Quarterly, Published online: March 24, 2017  


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