Wilson Center Receives Grant Funding for Plea Bargaining Work

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 11 a.m., Nov. 12, 2021

CONTACT: Melissa Boughton
(830) 481-6901

DURHAM, N.C. — Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law have received just under $900,000 from Arnold Ventures, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies to examine plea bargaining practices and sentencing outcomes in two district attorneys’ offices.

The funding, granted in July 2021, will allow researchers from Sanford and the Wilson Center to collaborate with prosecutors in Durham, North Carolina, and Provo, Utah, to design and pilot a three-year Plea Tracker project that generates comprehensive data on the factors that drive case outcomes.

“We are excited to support Duke University’s novel undertaking to examine plea bargaining practices and sentencing outcomes while evaluating real cases as they proceed through the criminal legal process,” said Whitney Williams, program officer of criminal justice grantmaking at Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies. “This research will help to identify evidence-based policies that can lead to more fair and just outcomes, and change the culture within district attorney offices by encouraging them to opt for decarceration where possible.

The Plea Tracker project seeks to measure outcomes, increase transparency, and build public trust throughout communities served by the Durham District Attorney’s office and the Utah County Attorney’s office.

The development of this plea tracking tool will make it possible for a wide range of offices to similarly collect data and track negotiated outcomes in criminal cases.

“We are so grateful to Arnold Ventures, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies for so generously supporting three years of truly groundbreaking work,” said Wilson Center Director Brandon Garrett. “No one has stepped inside the black box of the plea-bargaining process before.

“We will track the entire process with two truly remarkable district attorneys: Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry and Utah County Attorney David Leavitt. Already, this work has produced important new insights. We look forward to sharing the results of this collaboration, which we hope will provide a model for fairness and transparency.”

Garrett, who has a secondary faculty appointment at Sanford, also expressed enthusiasm about the Wilson Center’s collaboration with Associate Research Professor Beth Gifford and the Sanford School of Public Policy.

“So many problems that face our criminal legal system lie at the intersection of law and policy,” he explained. “With Beth and her team’s talent and vision, we hope to define and evaluate a new model for the plea process. We also hope that this is just one of many law and policy collaborations to come at Duke.”

Gifford, who serves as the Principal Investigator on the grants, described the project as a major investment for looking inside the black box of plea agreements and providing district attorneys with actionable data to monitor the approach used by their office and assess the equity of their practices.

“The Wilson Center has been at the forefront of creating a tool to support local prosecutors in efforts to ensure fair practices,” she added.

Early work regarding the plea tracker project was recently described in an op-ed published by the Boston Globe, and authored by District Attorney Deberry, Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington, whose office is also working with the Wilson Center on plea tracking, and Wilson Center post-doctoral fellow Adele Quigley-McBride.

They explained: “The Plea Tracker Project is an unprecedented look at how prosecutors use their discretion and a rare example of prosecutors putting a check on their own practices.”

Initial findings from the plea tracking work are also available in a draft law review article, titled “Open Prosecution.” The co-authors explain the need for plea tracking and what can be learned from the initial data.

“Prosecutors have vast discretion in how they run their offices, yet we know surprisingly little about their decision-making process and the impacts of those decisions on communities,” said Rebecca Silber, director of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures. “Collecting and evaluating data on plea deals will help us understand how prosecutors can use their discretion thoughtfully and justly.”