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Plea Bargaining Decisions in U. S

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1 Plea Bargaining Decisions in U. S
Plea Bargaining Decisions in U.S. District Courts: Testing for Variation Across Prosecutors Cassia Spohn, Ph.D. Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ, USA Steven Belenko, Ph.D. Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, USA Byungbae Kim Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ.USA Presented at the annual meeting of the European Society of Criminology Budapest, Hungary September 2013

2 Acknowledgements This study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, grant # SES (C. Spohn, principal investigator) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH/NIDA), grant # U01DA (S. Belenko, principal investigator).

3 Overview of Presentation
Objectives of the Study Plea Bargaining & the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Methods and Data Findings Conclusions and Policy Implications

4 Objectives of the Study
Remove the “cloak of secrecy” surrounding charging and plea bargaining decisions in the U.S. federal court system Substantial body of research on sentence outcomes in U.S. District Courts But, little research on charging and plea bargaining decisions Organizational norms vs. individual discretion

5 Three Research Questions
Do charge reductions vary across prosecutors? Does inter-prosecutor disparity vary depending on the type of offense (drug v. non-drug offense)? Do the factors that influence charge reductions vary across prosecutors?

6 Plea Bargaining Prosecutor offers a “deal” to the defendant to avoid trial Reduction/dismissal of charges or reduced sentence Must be approved by the judge “Trial penalty”—defendant told that more severe sentence will be recommended if case goes to trial 90% of criminal convictions in U.S. occur through plea bargain JUST RESULTS: Pleas reflect what would have happened at trial\ Local legal culture reflected in “going rate” Prosecutors take equitable factors into account when deciding on plea offer Can reduce disparity or effects of unfair legislation Empowers participants to resolve case fairly RESOURCE THEORIES: Saves scarce court resources – impossible to try all cases and pleas speed up case resolution Maximizes deterrence

7 U.S. District Courts Handle criminal cases based on violations of U.S. laws 78,440 criminal cases filed in 2011 Drug trafficking or similar cases are the most common, accounting for about one-third of all criminal case filings excluding immigration, regulatory, or traffic offenses 51% of Federal prison inmates are serving time for a drug offense U.S. Attorneys’ offices in each of 94 Federal Court districts handle the prosecution and are responsible for charging and plea bargaining decisions

8 U.S. Sentencing Guidelines
Guidelines were enacted in 1987 (Sentencing Reform Act) Designed to achieve uniformity, proportionality, and fairness in sentencing by constraining judicial discretion Sentences based on intersection of crime severity score (1-43) and criminal history score (1-6) Example: criminal history score of 3 and crime severity score of 24 = presumptive prison sentence of 63 to 78 months Laws enacted by U.S. Congress dictate lengthy potential prison sentences for drug trafficking cases

9 Plea Bargaining and the Guidelines
Plea bargaining poses an obstacle to achieving uniformity, proportionality and fairness in sentencing Guidelines prescribe similar sentences for similar defendants convicted of same offense But if conviction offense varies because of discretionary decisions of U.S. Attorneys then similar case types and offenses may not result in same conviction charges, creating unwarranted disparity

10 Plea Bargaining and the Guidelines
U.S. Attorneys have considerable discretion Precluded (in theory) from dismissing or reducing “readily provable charges” But, can Recommend sentence at bottom of applicable guideline range Stipulate to various factors that reduce either the offense seriousness score or the criminal history score Example: stipulate to amount of drugs smaller than amount in indictment Example: stipulate to a specific criminal history score File a motion for a departure for substantial assistance Determine whether statutory sentencing enhancements for use of weapon should be applied departure for substantial assistance – need to explain

11 Data and Methods All offenders convicted in three U.S. District Courts, during FYs 1998, 1999, 2000 District of Minnesota, District of Nebraska, District of Southern Iowa (N = 3139) Unique dataset that identifies the AUSA to whom the case was assigned Cases are nested within 102 AUSAs 48 AUSAs in Minnesota (N = 1188) 29 AUSAs in Nebraska (N = 1027) 25 AUSAs in Southern Iowa (N = 924)

12 Key Measures Dependent Variable (Charge Reduction)
Whether the most serious count was dismissed or was replaced with a less serious count (1 = yes; 0 = no) Independent Variables Offender’s race/ethnicity, gender, employment status, citizenship status and education Charge severity, criminal history score, number of counts, offense type, whether offender detained pretrial District court where case adjudicated

13 Analytic Strategy Multi-level modeling
1st Step: Estimate an unconditional model that indicates whether there is significant between-prosecutor variation in likelihood of charge reduction 2nd Step: Estimate a random intercept model that includes relevant control variables Two-level logistic regression model in which cases are nested with prosecutors 3rd Step: Partition data by offense type (drug and non- drug) and re-estimate models from step two 4th Step: Estimate a random coefficient model to determine whether effects of the Independent variables on charge reduction vary significantly across prosecutors

14 Findings: Descriptive Statistics

15 Findings: Unconditional Model
Question: Does use of charge reduction vary across prosecutors (w/o controlling for offender and case characteristics) Significant variation in use of charge reductions across prosecutors Typical prosecutor: predicted probability of charge reduction was 15.9% Predicted probability ranged from 5.1% to 40.2% Thus, whereas some prosecutors rarely offered offenders charge reductions (in only 5% of their cases), others reduced charges in a substantial proportion of the cases they handled (40% of their cases)

16 Findings: Random Intercept Model
Question: Does inter-prosecutor disparity persist once controls for offender and case characteristics are added to the model? Significant variation across prosecutors remains Adding offender and case characteristics reduces inter- prosecutor disparity by 13.4% Predicted probability for typical prosecutor in Nebraska was 11.6% (compared to 15.9% in unconditional model) Note: use of charge reductions more common in Minnesota than in Nebraska

17 Findings: Data Partitioned by Offense Type
Inter-prosecutor disparity in use of charge reductions did not vary by offense type Significant variations across prosecutors for both drug and non-drug offenses

18 Findings: Random Coefficients Model
Question: Do the factors that influence charge reductions vary across prosecutors? Prosecutors do attach differential weight to several factors Ethnicity (Hispanic, but not black) Gender Education Citizenship status Criminal history score

19 Summary of Findings Significant variation in AUSAs use of charge reduction during plea bargaining process Even after controlling for offender and case characteristics No differences in level of inter-prosecutor disparity for drug and non-drug offenses AUSAs’ charge reduction decisions affected differently by offender and case characteristics

20 Implications Need to study discretionary charging decisions and plea negotiations, as these affect sentence imposed by judge Judge in District of Southern Iowa, “We haven’t eliminated discretion in sentencing—we just moved it across the parking lot to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.” Need to study how cases are assigned to AUSAs in different offices Some AUSAs may be assigned cases with weaker evidence that are more likely to be plea bargained Role of defense counsel and judge in plea bargaining process is unclear Qualitative research designed to identify their roles is needed Implications for Just Results and Resource/Efficiency theories Jurisdictional differences highlight problems of aggregating data across 94 district courts These courts vary on important dimensions, including use of plea bargains


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