TWO OFFICERS ESCORTED a young black man into the courtroom, bringing him in handcuffs from a holding cell in the back called “the pen.” They placed him beside his public defender and stepped away. So far, things were routine. The prosecutor had offered the man a plea deal of probation and he indicated that he would accept. In a scene that plays out dozens of times a day in the Bronx criminal court, the judge ran through a constitutionally required script. This article was published in collaboration with Slate.She explained what it means to accept a prosecutor’s plea offer: that he was giving up his right to a trial; he was admitting guilt; he could not change his mind. The judge asked, as she must: “Is anyone forcing you to accept this plea today?” At this point, most people quietly say "no." But the man responded “yes,” he was being forced to accept the plea. Refusing to accept meant facing the strong arm of prosecution and potentially going to prison for years. He protested that he had no real choice.Three court officers surrounded him. The judge repeated the question: “Is anyone forcing you to accept this plea today?” This time, flanked by officers, he said no. A few minutes later, he walked out a free man, but he now had a criminal conviction and the oversight and constraints that come with probation.
Most of the empirical research examining racial disparities in the criminal justice system has focused on its two endpoints – the arrest and initial charging of defendants and judges’ sentencing decisions. Few studies have assessed disparities in the steps leading up to a defendant’s conviction, where various actors make choices that often constraint judges’ ultimate sentencing discretion. This article addresses this gap by examining racial disparities in the plea-bargaining process, focusing on the period between the initial filing of charges and the defendant’s conviction.
The results presented in this article reveal significant racial disparities in this stage of the criminal justice system. White defendants are twenty-five percent more likely than black defendants to have their principal initial charge dropped or reduced to a lesser crime. As a result, white defendants who face initial felony charges are less likely than black defendants to be convicted of a felony. Similarly, white defendants initially charged with misdemeanors are more likely than black defendants to be convicted for crimes carrying no possible incarceration or not being convicted at all.Racial disparities in plea-bargaining outcomes are greater in cases involving misdemeanors and low-level felonies. In cases involving severe felonies, black and white defendants achieve similar outcomes. Defendants’ criminal histories also play a key role in mediating racial disparities. While white defendants with no prior convictions receive charge reductions more often than black defendants with no prior convictions, white and black defendants with prior convictions are afforded similar treatment by prosecutors. These patterns in racial disparities suggest that prosecutors may be using race as a proxy for a defendant’s latent criminality and likelihood to recidivate.