Unshackling Plea Bargaining from Racial Bias

Elayne E. Greenberg | March 1, 2021

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, [but] if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Dr. Maya Angelou

When an African American male defendant tries to plea bargain an equitable justice outcome, he finds that the deep-rooted racial bias that casts African American men as dangerous, criminal and animalistic, compromises his justice rights. Plea bargaining has become the preferred process used to secure convictions for upwards of 97 percent of cases because of its efficiency. This efficiency, however, comes at a cost. The structure and process of plea bargaining makes it more likely that the historical racial bias that exists against African American male defendants will taint the negotiation process and justice outcomes. The racial profiling by the police, the presumption of guilt rather than innocence for African American men, the prosecutor’s discretion when charging the defendant, and the justice negotiation’s speed all contribute to the harsher negotiated sentences that African American male defendants receive compared to white male defendants accused of similar crimes. These racially tainted outcomes threaten the integrity of our justice system, and the core of our democracy.

This Article traces the origins of racial bias in plea bargaining by chronicling the historical relationship among three societal developments: slavery, the criminal justice system, and plea bargaining. The Article then explains how plea bargaining’s structure, as it exists today, allows these historical racial biases to manifest and fester. Culling from the research of cognitive psychologists, dispute system design scholars, and anti-racism educators, this Article prescribes organizational and procedural reforms to unshackle plea bargaining from racial bias.