DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — Duke University School of Law researchers find that around 90 to 95 percent of criminal cases in North Carolina are resolved through a plea bargain.
Still, Professor Brandon Garrett says little is known about how or why a plea deal is made.
“Even just the terms of plea offers, while they get filed into court and you know what sentence someone got — those weren’t saved,” he said.
The Plea Tracker Project took information from 325 closed cases in Durham between April 2021 and April 2022.
Garrett says the project is designed to tell the district attorney more about plea bargaining, hopefully improving the quality of justice.
“There’s already been interest around the country in using this plea tracker and we’re planning to share it with whoever would like to use it,” he said.
The faculty director of Duke’s Wilson Center also says having prosecutors document each stage in the plea-bargaining process has never been done before.
The tracker is intended to be used as a resource for them to show their work and state reasoning.
“We saw prosecutors document more mitigating factors when it’s a white defendant,” Garrett said. “And most defendants in Durham are not white, but that disparity really needs to be explored.”
The report describes how deals can change when there’s productive communication between the prosecution and defense. Around 75 percent of analyzed cases had at least one charge taken away.
“They do change the most when you’re at the level of less serious cases, but we see change sort of all the way up the map into some of the more serious offenses,” Garrett said.
Durham County District Attorney Satana DeBerry says the tool helps her make sure defendants are treated fairly. She wants to understand who they prosecute and why.
“If we’re going to say that we want prosecutors who aren’t evaluated just on convictions, we have to find a way to understand what those prosecutors are doing,” DeBerry said.
The Durham D.A.’s office will continue to use the tracker and a refined system will be launched in the near future.
“One of the main things that we hope that this does is give some transparency to our community to help rebuild trust in the work that we do,” DeBerry said.
Visit the full results of the plea tracker study here.