By Layna Hong
Plea bargains account for 90-95% of all criminal dispositions, and yet they are a mostly unstudied area of criminal justice. For the past year, Ph.D. student Catherine Grodensky has been part of an effort to help address this issue.
Through a partnership between Duke Law School’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice and the Durham County District Attorney’s office, Grodensky and a team of researchers have been working to develop an online plea tracker.
“It’s more and more apparent that pleas need to be examined,” she said. “Durham wants to make sure that charges are accurate, and the sentences are fair.”
That lack of transparency and knowledge is a significant issue in prosecution. The Plea Tracker Project is working to improve transparency between the district attorney’s office and the Durham community by collecting data on plea bargain negotiations. The data would be used to inform legislation and office policies.
Researchers are investigating information such as the defendant’s charges and sentencing and the degree to which defendants are involved in the negotiation process. They are also considering racial and socioeconomic disparities in plea bargaining outcomes.
Grodensky and the research team have been looking for patterns in what has changed since 2018, when Durham DA Satana Deberry took office. However, much like the mostly uncharted world of plea bargains, court data is murky and hard to work through.
“Administrative data sets are difficult,” said Grodensky, a research assistant on the project. “People are putting in data all the time in different ways, so it’s difficult to clean it.”
By collecting data and tracking negotiated outcomes in criminal cases, the project hopes to measure outcomes, increase transparency, and build public trust throughout the communities served by the DA offices.
"Prosecutors are unusual elected officials because you can’t really see what they’re doing and people don’t really understand what they’re doing,” Grodensky said.
Grodensky’s work focuses on the complexities of mass incarceration in the United States, with the goal of building toward a fairer criminal justice system. She said it’s important to study prison populations and mass incarceration because the United States has the largest incarceration rate of any country in the world.
Grodensky became interested in researching mass incarceration while obtaining her master of public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While at UNC, she mainly conducted health research within prison populations, but she also learned how ubiquitous plea bargains can be.
“I got upset about all the stories that people had about the criminal justice system,” she said, which prompted her to return to school and pursue her doctorate in public policy at Duke. “I was overwhelmed with the idea of mass incarceration.”
Now working with the Wilson Center, Grodensky said that she benefits from the diversity of the center’s research team, which includes researchers from different specialties and professions, like lawyers and psychologists. Having an interdisciplinary team is important in this type of human data collection, Grodensky said, because everyone has different specialties that allow them to see different angles of a case.
“The whole team works together to understand what the different pieces are,” she said. “We look for trends and commonalities.”
The researchers are not just looking at trends in Durham County, but nationally, too. The Plea Tracker Project is also working with prosecutors in Provo, Utah, and Bershire County, Massachusetts.
For the Durham DA, data collection began in April 2021, and researchers hope to gather at least a year of data before publishing their findings. With Deberry’s term ending this year, they hope to be able to have results before then. Eventually, Grodensky and the team want the tracker to be something the DA’s office can operate on its own.
“Right now, [the project] requires a lot of support from researchers,” Grodensky said. “Looking ahead, we want the office to be able to manage themselves and use it for self-evaluation.”
As for Grodensky, she hopes to continue to learn from prosecutors about their work. The more she can learn about their work, the more she can use it to inform her own research about mass incarceration and plea bargaining. Another one of her projects concerns local jails. There are few resources and research on local jails, unlike the prison system, which is centralized under the state.
“I want to build towards transparency and evidence-based decision making in the criminal justice system,” Grodensky said.