A Study of Plea Bargaining, Political Power, and Case Outcomes in Local Criminal Courts

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In this dissertation, I seek to understand the power of legal actors in determining punitiveness in plea bargaining in criminal courts. Using a unique combination of administrative court data and qualitative interviews, I evaluate the influence of the chief elected prosecutor, line prosecutors, and defense attorneys on plea bargaining practices and punitiveness in case outcomes across multiple local court systems. Chapter 2 presents an analysis of the association between the elected chief prosecutor and prosecution and active sentence rates in four types of criminal cases in nine districts in North Carolina. The study finds that chief prosecutors influenced punitiveness, but their influence was not aligned with their political party. Although Democratic and Republican chief prosecutors did not differ in levels of punitiveness, the one progressive prosecutor in the sample reduced punitiveness across most crime types to the lowest levels out of all nine study districts. Chapter 3 examines how line prosecutors working in one progressive prosecutor’s office reduced punitiveness in case outcomes, mainly by dismissing weak and low-priority cases even before they reached the plea bargaining stage. Finally, Chapter 4 explores the power of the defense attorney in plea bargaining, and shows how the legal actors and context of the plea bargaining interaction impacted defense attorneys’ leverage and negotiation strategies. These chapters provide insights into current movements to reform prosecution and reduce mass incarceration in the United States, and shed light on how punitiveness may be impacted through the complex process of plea bargaining.






Grodensky, Catherine Aspden (2023). A Study of Plea Bargaining, Political Power, and Case Outcomes in Local Criminal Courts. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/29114.


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