PUBLISHED:November 12, 2021

Wilson Center receives nearly $900,000 in grants to examine plea bargains


The funds support a collaboration with the Sanford School to generate comprehensive data on the factors that drive case outcomes.

Professor Brandon Garrett Professor Brandon Garrett

​The Wilson Center for Science and Justice and the Sanford School of Public Policy have received nearly $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 grants will allow researchers from the Wilson Center and the Sanford School to collaborate with prosecutors in Durham, N.C., 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 grant-making 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 L. Neil Williams Professor Brandon Garrett, who directs the Wilson Center. “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 ['94] 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 said he was pleased to collaborate with Associate Research Professor Beth Gifford and her team at the Sanford School, where he has a secondary faculty appointment.

“So many problems that face our criminal legal system lie at the intersection of law and policy,” he explained. “With Beth's 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.”

Associate Research Professor Beth Gifford
Associate Research Professor Beth Gifford

Gifford, who serves as the principal investigator on the grants, described the project as a major investment in bringing transparency to the plea process and providing district attorneys with actionable data to monitor and assess the equity of the approaches used by their offices.

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

Deberry, Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington, and Wilson Center post-doctoral fellow Adele Quigley-McBride authored a recent op-ed describing their early participation in the Plea Tracker Project.

“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,” they wrote.

Initial findings from the plea tracking work are also available in a draft law review article, "Open Prosecution," in which Garrett, Gifford, and 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.”