PITTSFIELD — The vast majority of criminal cases never make it to trial: Ninety to 95 percent are resolved by plea bargain instead.
But, what occurs during plea negotiations between prosecutors and defense lawyers happens outside the public eye, making it difficult to analyze trends in how prosecutors choose to exercise their discretion during sentencing.
A research initiative led by the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law School in North Carolina aims to shed light on the issue.
Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington and District Attorney Satana Deberry from Durham County in North Carolina are participating in a research project called The Plea Tracker. A third district attorney, David O. Leavitt, of Provo, Utah, is expected to join the initiative, too. The officials agreed to provide data about factors that prosecutors weigh when deciding to recommend prison, probation, dismissal or another case outcome.
“There are three main areas of priority for my office that we have worked on developing a data tracking in this project; it’s racial justice, looking at regional disparities, and how we better empower victims,” Harrington said during a virtual Thursday morning news conference.
Top of mind for Harrington is analyzing how well the office is serving the victims of crime, violent crime in particular, adding that the race of a victim has “historically been a strong driver in case outcomes.”
She wants Berkshire prosecutors to track the “role of the victims’ input in our plea negotiations so that we can ensure that we are centering our victims appropriately and that we’re advocating for them equitably.”
Harrington said she is concerned with “regional disparities” in the criminal justice system. While incarceration rates are declining in urban areas, according to Harrington, they are rising in rural communities. Meanwhile, Western Massachusetts is “severely under-resourced” when it comes to the availability of health care and trauma services, Harrington said.
Harrington said the plea tracker work builds on a Harvard study completed last year, which she said “told us the things that we already know, but in really stark terms”: That Black people receive sentences that are, on average, 168 days longer than white people, and Latino people receive sentences that are, on average, 148 days longer.
Since April, prosecutors in the Berkshire DA’s office have been collecting information about plea bargains through online surveys. The prosecutors document factors including victim and defendant demographics, dangerousness risk, mental health and substance use treatment and the desires of crime victims.
The data will provide a first-of-its kind, detailed look into the “actual negotiation processes across a range of cases,” said Ronald Wright, a Wake Forest University law school professor and legal researcher.
That will illuminate how well prosecutors are living up to the promises they made on the campaign trail, and give journalists and other members of the public the information they need to analyze trends in cases that are resolved through plea bargains, he said.
Deberry said her office is focused on addressing “racial disparities in our system” and ensuring “both defendants and victims are treated equitably.”
“It’s through pleas that our country now has a system of mass incarceration that has disproportionately ensnared people of color,” Deberry added.
In Berkshire County, prosecutors are using the online forms to report information to researchers, who will analyze the data and compile a report with their findings after one year of collection, ending around April 2022. Researchers also are working to centralize the data in an online “dashboard” tool, she said.
“The aggregate data that we collect for the first year will be presented in a sort of formal report that would be available to the media. But, the actual data set itself is something that’s owned by us as researchers, and the DA offices themselves,” said Adele Quigley-McBride, a postdoctoral associate at Duke Law’s Wilson Center who has been working on the project with Harrington’s office.