Effect of Race and Education on Plea Outcomes for Public Defender Clients

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Ector, Al'leta
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Middle Tennessee State University
Plea bargains are a negotiated process between a prosecutor, judge, defense attorney/public defender, and defendant where an individual facing criminal charges pleads guilty in exchange for a lesser charge, lesser sentence, or dropped charges. Plea bargains are deeply rooted within the U.S. legal history and have shaped laws and legal procedures. Between 98-99 percent of convictions in the United States result from some form of plea bargaining; very few cases go to trial. Although extremely common and beneficial on many levels, this process is not without critics. Beyond actual innocence, there are questions about the fairness of plea deals for defendants. The research question for my thesis is: how does race and educational level of a defendant explain the case disposition for those accepting a guilty plea? I use secondary data from a single county in Tennessee compiled from public defender’s (PD) records for the years 2016-2019 to examine four case outcomes: cases dismissed, deferred to probation, guilty to a lesser charge, and guilt as charged. Of the 6,800 cases, nearly 60 percent of cases were guilty as charged and only a smaller percentage (3.5%) were deferred to probation. White clients were more likely to plead guilty as charged compared to Black clients. Those with higher education were more likely to have cases dismissed or deferred to probation. In addition, younger ages and females were more likely to negotiate lesser charges, be deferred to probation, or have their cases dismissed than older, male clients. Felony cases were more likely to negotiate lesser charges than misdemeanor cases. Implications of these findings and limitations of the data are discussed.
Sociology, Social research