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New research examining plea deals finds multiple problems


Many criminal cases end not in a trial but in a plea deal. Lawyers negotiate such agreements in private, meaning the public learns very little about how they work. Now studies find problems with plea deals in three regions. It seems some innocent people plead guilty simply to resolve their cases, even some prosecutors think so. Steve Vockrodt is with NPR's Midwest Newsroom and is covering this story. Good morning.

STEVE VOCKRODT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who looked into these cases?

VOCKRODT: These were two studies commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation. One took a look at the Philadelphia district attorney's office. And the other examined the prosecutors' offices in St. Louis County and Milwaukee County.


VOCKRODT: The studies are considered unprecedented because negotiating guilty pleas is such an important part of how justice works. But there's been little in the way of critical examination of how these deals get made. The studies also found that prosecutors have outsized influence in this behind-the-scenes dealmaking. And it turns out, according to these studies, prosecutors didn't always do a good job of documenting their decisions or keeping data about the outcomes of these negotiations.

INSKEEP: Oh, so part of the lack of knowledge here is just by the system itself. Things are not really tracked. But as far as they could tell, how often do people just give up and plead guilty?

VOCKRODT: So the study didn't have those types of specifics. But in the Philadelphia study, several prosecutors did say that they suspected that innocent people sometimes did admit to something they didn't do. Based on the studies and my conversations with researchers, defendants sometimes feel pressure to accept a deal because they want to get out of jail quickly if they're locked up after being charged. Or they get a deal that's so attractive that they want to put the whole thing behind them. The studies' authors thought that prosecutors admitting that some people may be innocent was remarkable. Here's the Urban Institute's Andreea Matei.

ANDREEA MATEI: It does raise ethical concerns. And it also raises some opportunities for practice changes and just different reforms that offices can make to avoid feeling that you can't reevaluate whether to offer a plea or not.

INSKEEP: Let's look at another layer of this. We know that people of different races, statistically speaking, have been treated differently in the criminal justice system. Is that true of plea deals, too?

VOCKRODT: Yeah. So this study found that Black defendants in St. Louis County, for example, are less likely to plead guilty than white defendants. And an expert I talked to said that's probably because a lack of trust in the justice system and skepticism about the consequences that - of any offer that's made to them. In Wisconsin's Milwaukee County, overall, there were fewer racial differences. About 65% of all people plead guilty in cases there. And going back to Philadelphia, a major - majority of prosecutors surveyed acknowledged that people of color get harsher plea offers. And most said that structural racism is present in the criminal justice system. And that can impact a plea offer.

INSKEEP: What can people in the system do differently?

VOCKRODT: So in general, the studies suggest that prosecutors' offices do a better job of keeping data on plea deals. Do a better job of training their employees to stick to guidelines and policies around negotiating these deals. And they also suggest reducing the amount of cases they deal with by dropping some charges or offering diversion.

INSKEEP: OK. Steve Vockrodt is a reporter with NPR's Midwest Newsroom in Kansas City, Mo. Thanks for joining us.

VOCKRODT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Vockrodt