Understanding Plea Bargaining in a New Progressive DA’s Office: How Line Prosecutors Understand and Implement Progressive Goals Through Plea Decisions

AuthorCatherine A. Grodensky,William E. Crozier,Elizabeth J. Gifford,Brandon L. Garrett
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2023, Vol. 50, No. 3, March 2023, 429 –453.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/00938548221140356
Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions
© 2022 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
How Line Prosecutors Understand and Implement
Progressive Goals Through Plea Decisions
Duke University
Plea deals resolve the vast majority of prosecuted criminal cases in the U.S. legal system. Prosecutors hold disproportionate
power in plea bargaining and have been blamed for driving punitiveness and racial disparities. Progressive prosecutors aim
to reverse these trends, but little is known about how they will alter plea practices. We conducted qualitative interviews with
all the assistant district attorneys (ADAs, N = 19) in a mid-sized office with a newly elected progressive DA. Interviews
discussed how ADAs implemented office policies and progressive goals in plea bargaining. Prosecutors described working
to implement five main progressive goals in their plea decisions: (a) dismissing low-level drug possession charges; (b) avoid-
ing over-penalization, particularly for “victimless” crimes; (c) declining to prosecute weak cases; (d) encouraging open
communication with defense; and (e) promoting racial equity. Prosecutors’ descriptions of how these goals guided case deci-
sions illuminate how progressive prosecution may affect the criminal justice system through plea bargaining.
Keywords: decision-making; qualitative methods; law; criminal justice system; sentencing
Prosecutors wield considerable power in the U.S. judicial system, in large part because
they have a great deal of discretion in criminal cases, including to dismiss or defer,
determine charges, and make bail and sentencing recommendations. Scholars have dis-
cussed that prosecutors’ use of power and discretion may have contributed to mass
AUTHORS’ NOTE: This study was supported with a dissertation grant award from the Law & Science pro-
gram at the National Science Foundation (SBE #2016661) and with funding from Arnold Ventures, Chan
Zuckerberg Initiative, and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies. We would like to acknowl-
edge Karima Modjadidi, Ellie Studdard, Micalyn Struble, Rachel Ruderman, and Lucy Callard for their help
with data collection and analysis, and Jennifer Teitcher and Adele Quigley-McBride for their thoughtful com-
ments in conceptualizing the framing of the manuscript. We would also like to thank the Durham District
Attorney’s Office for their time and collaboration on the research. Correspondence concerning this article
should be addressed to Elizabeth J. Gifford, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, 302 Towerview
Rd., Durham, NC 27708; e-mail: beth.gifford@duke.edu.
1140356CJBXXX10.1177/00938548221140356Criminal Justice and BehaviorGrodensky et al. / Plea Bargaining in Progressive DA’s Office
incarceration in the United States (Raphael & Stoll, 2013; Western, 2014; Zimring, 2020).
Over the past decade, increasing numbers of prosecutors have campaigned for office
based on more progressive ideals and seek to consider local prosecution priorities such as
reducing reliance on pretrial detention and prison sentences (Davis, 2019). Such progres-
sive prosecutors have outlined a platform of strategies such as reducing reliance on cash
bail, incorporating treatment and rehabilitation into criminal sentences, reducing puni-
tiveness for nonviolent offenses, and not seeking the death penalty (Pickerell, 2020b;
Sklansky, 2017).
Of criminal cases that are not dismissed, the vast majority are resolved through a plea
bargain rather than a trial (Bibas, 2006). Although the rules that structure plea bargaining
and practices vary somewhat across states and localities, plea bargains essentially constitute
agreements between prosecution and defense regarding the specific charges that a person is
convicted of, and the terms of the resulting sentence, which are generally more lenient than
what would have been expected at a trial. Compared with trials, pleas require fewer resources
and less judicial involvement, although judges in some jurisdictions may sometimes still
reject or alter terms of a plea. This relative freedom from judicial involvement could make
pleas ideal avenues for prosecutors to produce more lenient sentences unilaterally and rely
less on incarceration. Past research suggests progressive prosecutors seek to reduce puni-
tiveness and coercion, meaning that their plea bargaining tactics may rely less on leverage
and more on building an understanding of the person charged with the criminal offense and
their needs than the “law and order” tactics of traditional prosecution (Davis, 2019; Pickerell,
2020b; Sklansky, 2017). However, little is known about whether and how line prosecutors
would implement progressive strategies in plea bargaining.
Through qualitative interviews in a recently-elected progressive district attorney’s office,
we explored how line prosecutors engaged with and implemented the progressive goals of
their office in plea bargaining. Although previous studies have described the stated goals of
elected prosecutors (Davis, 2019; Pickerell, 2020b; Sklansky, 2017), this study is novel in
its use of qualitative methods to dig deeper into how individual plea bargaining decisions
are approached in an office implementing progressive reforms. This study is also novel in
profiling a mid-sized jurisdiction, as mid-sized jurisdictions are different from (and more
prevalent than) the large districts that have been the subjects of progressive prosecution
study, such as Philadelphia and Chicago. Findings shed light on the challenges of accom-
plishing progressive goals while balancing interests in assuring public safety.
We have multiple reasons for focusing on plea bargaining in this study. First, plea bar-
gaining constitutes the vast majority of case dispositions in U.S. criminal courts (Bibas,
2006). As the U.S. Supreme Court aptly stated: “criminal justice today is for the most part
a system of pleas, not a system of trials” (“Lafler v. Cooper,” 2012, p. 3). Pleas have increas-
ingly supplanted trials, primarily for reasons of efficiency. Trials are highly regulated and
procedural, requiring significant preparation time from the attorneys involved as well as
additional court resources and time from judges and juries. Although the United States sig-
nificantly increased criminal justice spending in the 20th century, most of that money went
to hiring police and prosecutors and building jails, and little of it funded additional court
resources that would support the number of trials required to dispense with all the new

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