Is Plea Bargaining Color Blind?

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Photo by Karen Neoh via Flickr

Black male defendants are less likely to receive lower sentences when they agree to plead guilty  than black females or whites of both genders, a new study found.

The study, published this month in Justice Quarterly, based its findings on data from 907  felony cases represented by public defenders in a circuit court in one of Florida’s larger counties.

The authors— Christi Metcalfe, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal justice at the University of South Carolina; and Ted Chiricos, professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University—examined the factors that predict likelihood of plea across race and gender, and potential racial disparities in the plea value regarding charge reduction.

The study findings suggest that black defendants –and black males in particular—are less likely to plead guilty than white defendants, the authors said, adding that when guilty pleas are entered, black male defendants get the worst value for their plea.

While the authors say the data is not sufficient to conclude that the disparities are due to racial or gender bias, they argue that many defendants behave as if they assume such biases exist, further distorting justice system outcomes.

“If plea bargaining is viewed as advantageous for its more lenient sentencing outcomes, it appears that black males, and to a lesser extent white males, are disadvantaged in a system that relies heavily on plea bargaining”—particularly when, as the authors note, 95% of all convictions are the result of a guilty plea.

This study is available for purchase. Journalists can receive a full copy of the report by contacting Victoria Mckenzie at A summary is available here.

This summary was prepared by TCR intern Davi Hernandez


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