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Judge John E. Turner (Ret.)

Race and poverty influence plea deals offered to defendants

When a defendant agrees to a plea bargain in Washington, the decision is final and it will mean a criminal conviction of some sort. Prosecutors determine the terms of plea deals, and people who lack the means to pay for bail typically accept them because they'll generally get to go home if the charges are misdemeanors.

When someone can pay the bail, the pressure to accept a plea deal goes down. A defendant with financial resources can obtain release from jail and potentially ask an attorney to review the case. Legal representation might result in a better plea deal than what a prosecutor initially offers.

Race typically intersects with poverty and the nature of the initial plea bargains presented to defendants. A research study that looked at over 30,000 misdemeanor cases across seven years identified significant differences in the treatment of black and white people. Plea bargains offered to white defendants were 74 percent more likely to remove charges that might result in prison sentences. When prosecutors created plea bargains for people with no criminal histories, whites had their charges reduced more frequently than nonwhites.

Any person charged with a crime has the right to retain legal counsel. An attorney could strive to create a criminal defense that protects the person's rights and challenges a prosecutor's harsh view of the situation. After an arrest, the representation of an attorney help might convince a judge to offer the option of release on bail. An attorney's explanation of the charges and potential penalties could help the defendant understand the stakes and make an informed decision about entering a plea. A defense lawyer could also directly engage the prosecutor in negotiations and seek a plea deal with lenient terms.

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