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Study shows racial disparity in plea bargains

Some nonwhite defendants in Florida may be under more pressure to accept a plea deal and might receive less favorable terms than white defendants. According to a study that looked at misdemeanor cases in Wisconsin, the likelihood that white people will have a misdemeanor dropped, dismissed or reduced is 74 percent higher than it is for black people.

Other studies have supported this finding of racial disparity in how pleas are handled. However, the latest study is broader than many previous studies. The majority of criminal cases are for misdemeanors instead of felonies, and most sentences are the result of plea bargains rather than court trials. Therefore, if this disparity is widespread, it may be of concern to the justice system.

Two issues with this disparity are the amount of power that a prosecutor holds and the difference in how the situation might play out based on a person's income level. Prosecutors can decide whether they will request pre-trial detention and bail as well as how defendants will be charged. A defendant who cannot afford bail, often a nonwhite person, may be more likely to accept a less favorable plea deal. A white person with more money may pay the bail and hire an attorney to fight the charges.

A defendant who is seeking criminal defense for a felony or misdemeanor might want to keep these points in mind. A plea bargain is not always a bad idea. Serious charges may be reduced and a long prison sentence could be avoided with a plea bargain. However, the person charged might want to make sure that the offer is a fair one. Accepting a plea bargain may also depend on other factors such as how strong the prosecutor's case is. A lawyer could help a defendant through the decision-making process.

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