Vera Report Reviews Research on Plea Bargaining

Research shows that a majority of people “found guilty” in the U.S. never stand trial

NEW YORK, NYIn a report released today, the Vera Institute of Justice, with support from the Safety and Justice Challenge, an initiative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, highlights the mounting concerns about plea bargaining’s coercive nature and its critical role in fueling mass incarceration. Examining a small but growing body of empirical studies, researchers found a mix of complicated, nuanced, and sometimes contradictory research findings.

Most criminal convictions—97 percent in state courts in 2009 and 90 percent in federal court in 2014—are the result of guilty pleas. And of these, an estimated 90 percent are a result of plea bargaining—an informal and unregulated process by which prosecutors and defense counsel negotiate charging and sentencing concessions in exchange for guilty pleas. Researchers face many challenges in studying plea bargains as they are undocumented and happen outside of courtrooms. However, studies have revealed the ways in which plea bargaining can bypass due process, coerce innocent people to plead guilty, and perpetuate racial inequities.

“It is troubling that plea bargains form the bedrock of our criminal justice system when so little is known about them,” said Léon Digard, research strategy editor at Vera and one of the authors of the new report. "Reviewing the literature and studies on plea bargaining reveals a desperate need for greater transparency in the process - a process that, for some people, might not be a 'bargain' at all."

With little known about plea bargaining, studies like these are vital to understanding a process central to how the criminal legal system currently operates. With the American justice system in crisis, this review and analysis brings to light the ways the criminal legal system has become an ad hoc administrative process.

About the Vera Institute of Justice

The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis, and research that inspire change in the systems people rely on for safety and justice. Vera collaborates with the communities most impacted by these systems and works in close partnership with government and civic leaders to implement change. Across projects, Vera is committed to explicitly and effectively reducing the burdens of the justice system on people of color and frames all work with an understanding of our country’s history of racial oppression. Vera is currently pursuing core priorities of ending the misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, providing legal services for immigrants, and ensuring that justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. Vera has offices in Brooklyn, NY; Washington, DC; New Orleans; and Los Angeles.

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