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Study finds some racial disparities in plea bargains approved in Berkshire District Courts

A study has found some racial disparities in plea bargains approved by District Courts in Berkshire County.

Most criminal cases are settled through plea bargains, which can take place any time before a trial. But these agreements aren't well documented.

The Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke University School of Law worked collaboratively with the Berkshire District Attorney's office to analyze a year of plea bargains, starting in April 2021.

The study looked at 81 Superior Court cases and 1,012 District Court cases. Researchers had complete data for 585 of the District Court cases.

The study found white defendants in District Court were about twice as likely to hire a private attorney than Black defendants. Those with private attorneys in District and Superior Court were more often sentenced to probation, rather than to prison.

Researcher Adele Quigley-McBride said the study found Black defendants in District Court were more likely to accept a guilty plea than a White person.

"Black individuals in District Court were more likely to receive a conviction than their White counterparts," she said "White people were definitely more likely to receive what's called a continuance without a finding, which avoids a conviction on their record."

In other words, white people in District Court were able to secure deals that would have less impact on their future. The study did not find those kinds of racial disparities in Berkshire Superior Court.

When it came to sentencing in District and Superior Court, the study did not find statistically significant racial disparities between Black, White or Hispanic defendants.

The Wilson Center is in the midst of a similar study with the DA's office in Durham County, North Carolina.

The study in Berkshire County was completed before Harrington left office. She was defeated in the September 2022 Democratic primary by attorney Timothy Shugrue.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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