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The Midwest Newsroom is a partnership between NPR and member stations to provide investigative journalism and in-depth reporting with a focus on Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

Plea bargain study examines racial disparities in deal-making in St. Louis County

The Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton, Mo., the county seat of St. Louis County.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
The Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton, Mo., the county seat of St. Louis County.

Black defendants in St. Louis County are less likely to enter deals to plead guilty to criminal charges than white defendants, according to a study from a group including University of Missouri - St. Louis Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

The study, one of a pair funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, found that 76% of Black defendants have their criminal cases in St. Louis County resolved by a guilty plea, compared to 88% of white defendants.

Beth Huebner, a professor in the University of Missouri - St. Louis Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said a lack of trust in the justice system makes people less likely to accept a plea deal.

“The fear of police or lack of trust in the criminal justice system. It's not just police, it comes all the way to the court system,” Huebner said. “People haven't been treated the same by the criminal justice system, or the criminal legal system.”

She added that defendants who have public defenders may be more likely to take their case to trial.

“People are not sure, they don't trust their public defender, aren't sure what the system is going to do so are more likely to push for a trial,” Huebner said. “Versus we see with more just generally white people, and it's also people with means — the ability to buy or to afford an attorney — they often trust their attorney, or go into those plea deals.”

The study's authors describe it as an unprecedented examination of plea negotiations, an often opaque and understudied element of the criminal justice system, one by which many criminal cases reach a resolution.

“The problems reflected in and created by plea bargaining are significant, and the people involved with the criminal justice system – disproportionately people of color and economically disadvantaged individuals – are paying the price,” said Laurie Garduque, the MacArthur Foundation’s director of criminal justice in a statement. “These two reports underscore how little was previously known about this widespread practice and the lack of standardization both within and across jurisdictions, helping to make an otherwise behind the scenes system failure clearer and forming the basis for much-needed reforms that can make the criminal justice system more fair and just.”

Plea pressures

The study’s authors picked three jurisdictions that were led by reform-oriented prosecutors.

The research found that nearly half of the assistant district attorneys surveyed in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office said they believe innocent defendants sometimes or even often take plea deals.

Andreea Matei, a researcher for the Urban Institute and lead author of the Philadelphia study, said that while it’s understood that innocent people sometimes admit guilt for something they didn’t do, hearing prosecutors acknowledge that was “a little bit shocking.”

“It does really raise an ethical problem,” Matei said. “If you think about the fact that a mistake miscarriage of justice, a theoretical and very foundational miscarriage of justice is providing some sort of punishment to someone who is actually innocent of the offense. It does raise ethical concerns, and it also raises some opportunities for practice changes.”

Jane Roh, a spokesperson for Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, said in a statement that the survey polled a small sample of employees in the office.

“Since DA Larry Krasner was elected to reform this office, it has been the priority of every unit to train and supervise fair, ethical, and community justice-seeking prosecutors,” Roh said. “This study of prosecutorial discretion in negotiated convictions validates the work our attorneys do to seek the truth and achieve even handed justice in criminal courtrooms every day.”

A narrow majority — 55% — of Philadelphia assistant district attorneys surveyed for the study also acknowledged that people of color tend to receive harsher plea offers.

“Again, that's something that was very much a product of having this trust with people in the office and having this level of candor, very obvious that this is happening throughout the system,” Matei said. “And having that recognition, and that admission from a criminal legal system actor is huge. I think that that's part of this whole effort towards reform, as part of the ideal that da Krasner has is acknowledging that there are these system changes that need to be made.”

Huebner said some people in St. Louis County reported pressures to plead guilty.

“When we talked to some people who have been involved in the system, they felt very much a pressure to plead, particularly during COVID,” Huebner said. “I mean, people were locked up in jail. You can remember those early days of COVID, right? How scary (to be) in jail.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate of guilty pleas were dropping in St. Louis County, according to the study.

In 2016, 83% of criminal cases were resolved by guilty pleas. In 2019, that dropped to 75%.

A standing-room-only crowd at La Mexicana in St. Ann listens to Wesley Bell's victory speech, which included Bell thanking many of the people who helped organize and support his campaign. Aug 7, 2018
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
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Wesley Bell became St. Louis County prosecuting attorney when he took office in January 2019.

Huebner attributed the drop to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell’s office’s willingness to consider diversion, particularly for low-level drug offenses.

In a statement, Bell said his office has implemented policies that have resulted in a 30% decrease in the jail population in St. Louis County, bringing it to its lowest level since the early 2000s.

“While our policies are intended to make certain everyone is treated fairly and equitably (regardless of race, gender, background, orientation), once a crime has been committed and a case brought to our office by law enforcement, we make decisions solely based on the merits of the case and seek outcomes that are just based on those merits," Bell said.

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPRKCUR 89.3Nebraska Public Media NewsSt. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Steve Vockrodt is the investigative editor for the Midwest Newsroom.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.