PUBLISHED:February 20, 2023

Wilson Center and Durham County District Attorney's Office release data from Plea Tracker Project


The Wilson Center for Science and Justice partnered with the Durham County District Attorney's Office on a year-long study that opens up the "black box" of prosecutorial decision-making.

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry '94 Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry '94

Data released Tuesday by the Durham County District Attorney’s Office and the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law sheds new light on plea bargaining, including how prosecutors weigh pleas and how the process results in changes to initial charges and the final sentences imposed.

The new report Plea Bargaining in the Durham County District Attorney’s Office details the results from a year-long study, the Plea Tracker Project, during which researchers collected and analyzed information from more than 300 Superior Court cases and more than 1,800 felony and misdemeanor charges disposed between April 2021 and April 2022 in Durham County, N.C.

In partnering with the Wilson Center to examine the factors that go into prosecutorial decision-making, the DA’s Office hopes to better understand how felony cases are resolved, identify disparities in those resolutions, and bring more transparency to the process, District Attorney Satana Deberry ’94 said.

“As prosecutors, the plea process is our biggest opportunity to use our discretion to create a more equitable system,” Deberry said.

“The Plea Tracker Project is an important tool for ensuring our case resolutions are equitable, consistent, and tailored to address the root causes of criminal behavior. We are proud to have invested in this data collection work, which has already shed new light on how to achieve public safety, fairness, and justice for our Durham community.”

The Plea Tracker Project breaks new ground in opening up a historically opaque system. What happens during the negotiation process has not been possible to study systematically, because despite plea agreements accounting for approximately 90-95% of all criminal case dispositions nationwide, plea offers are often not documented so available court data does not reflect what happened during the negotiations. 

“We hope that what Durham has done provides a model for other offices,” said L. Neil Williams, Jr. Professor of Law Brandon L. Garrett, faculty director of the Wilson Center. 

“For years, academics and policymakers have called for meaningful data on the plea process. The leadership demonstrated by District Attorney Deberry during this year of impactful work shows that it is feasible and valuable to track pleas. We believe that this type of plea tracking should be the national standard practice.”

The study provides insights on how the plea process results in changes to charges and to final sentences imposed. During the plea process, almost 90% of cases initially indicted as felonies resulted in a guilty plea to a felony. However, about three-fourths of cases had at least one charge dismissed during the process and nearly half had charges reduced. Prosecutors discussed terms of pleas with victims in the vast majority of cases. About a quarter of the cases involved violent crimes. The most common offenses included drugs, larceny, and robbery. The most commonly pled charge was possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Approximately 60% of cases studied involved a person victim, and about two-thirds of victims knew the defendant in their case.

Professor of Law and Wilson Center Faculty Director Brandon Garrett
Professor of Law and Wilson Center Faculty Director Brandon Garrett

One novel aspect of this plea tracking work was that prosecutors were asked to consider what reasons supported their decisions. In doing this, prosecutors considered both aggravating factors, which would call for a more severe sentence, and mitigating factors, which would call for a more lenient result, in each case.

“Reporting cases to the Plea Tracker causes prosecutors to pause, reflect on their decisions, and in turn, check implicit biases,” said Assistant District Attorney Daniel Spiegel, who led implementation of the initiative in the office as policy counsel.

“Tracking our pleas means holding ourselves accountable for the ways we use our discretion, creating transparency both within the office and with the public we serve.”

The report describes in detail how prosecutors weighed appropriate pleas. Felony cases included more aggravating than mitigating factors per case. Prosecutors reported that public safety factors, like presence of a firearm and severity of the offense, were commonly very important in negotiations, while the most common mitigating factors were limited criminal history, substance abuse, and age. Collateral consequences of a conviction, including health and community consequences, were considered in two-thirds of cases.

Across all racial groups and gender categories, a person’s criminal record and the seriousness of the offense were the most cited factors. However, more mitigating factors were considered in cases with White people and more aggravating factors in cases with Black people.

The role of the defense in plea negotiations also stood out as extremely important in the plea process. Prosecutors reported communicating with the defense about three-quarters of the time before making an initial offer. In more than a third of cases, defense attorneys provided mitigating evidence to support a more lenient sentence before prosecutors made their initial offer; such evidence had at least some influence on the final charges in the vast majority of those cases.

The data also shed light on conditions of supervision, present in about three-quarters of cases, with no-contact orders, mental health stipulations, and anger management training most common in violent crime cases, and in nonviolent cases, orders for substance abuse assessment and treatment and Cognitive Behavioral Interventions (CBI).

Judges, however, appeared to play a less impactful role in these pleas. Judges did not modify pleas in 87% of these cases. However, in the small number of cases in which the sentence was left open, judges often added additional conditions.

The lead author of the report is Duke Law post-doctoral fellow Kevin Dahaghi, who is working on further analyses of the data. An article describing the results of this work is forthcoming this year in Stanford Law Review.

Catherine Grodensky, a PhD candidate in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, interviewed each of the prosecutors in the Durham office, and studied their priorities and practices concerning plea bargaining. A second round of qualitative interviews is currently taking place.

“I was so grateful for the opportunity to have conversations with each of the prosecutors and explore the culture and policies of the Office,” Grodensky said.

Plea tracking in the Durham DA’s Office is ongoing, with a new system to be launched soon that will expand and refine the information being captured.

The full report, “Plea Bargaining in the Durham County District Attorney’s Office,” is available at