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Does Evidence Really Matter? An Exploratory Analysis of the Role of Evidence in Plea Bargaining in Felony Drug Cases

NCJ Number
Law and Human Behavior Volume: 39 Issue: 5 Dated: October 2015 Pages: 431-442
B. L. Kutateladze; V. Z. Lawson; N. R. Andiloro
Date Published
October 2015
12 pages

This study examined the potential impact of evidentiary factors, as well as other legal and extralegal factors, on two plea bargaining decisions, plea-to-a-lesser-charge offers and sentence offers, using data on felony drug cases processed by the New York County District Attorney's Office.


The majority of cases in the United States are disposed of through plea bargaining; however, this important discretionary point has received relatively little attention from researchers compared with trial and jury proceedings, and other discretionary points such as arrest and sentencing. Additionally, although evidence is considered an important factor in determining case outcomes, its influence on prosecutors' decisions regarding plea offers is less clear. The current study found that prosecutors made more punitive charge offers when they had audio/video evidence, eyewitness identification(s), prerecorded buy money used by an undercover officer in a buy-and-bust operation, or had recovered currency. Of all evidence factors analyzed, only the recovery of currency predicted sentence offers. By contrast, three other factorsdefendants' detention status, the presence of multiple plea offers, and prior prison sentencehad a much greater impact on charge and sentence offers. Although additional research is needed, it is possible that evidence has a greater impact at the initial stages of a case, particularly on the decision about whether to accept a case for prosecution, than it does on subsequent prosecutorial decisions. (Publisher abstract modified)