THE WEIGHT OF EVIDENCE IN DRUG CASES: A MULTI-METHOD STUDY OF DISCRETION AND SENTENCING IN TEXAS
Johnson, Brian D
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While guilty pleas dominate criminal sentencing, researchers are still working to understand the inner workings of plea bargaining. Furthermore, much sentencing research focuses on guideline jurisdictions and many readily-available datasets do not include information on evidence or arrest circumstances, which are likely important for prosecutorial decisions. This dissertation starts to fill these gaps with a multi-method study using newly collected set of drug cases from a large, urban county in a state (Texas) with an indeterminate sentencing structure. Cocaine is particularly salient given its role in the War on Drugs and little is known about how drug cases are currently processed in state criminal courts. Practitioners in this jurisdiction depict a casual bargaining process that occurs in the vast majority of cases. Plea bargaining is described as a haggling process much like car buying and each defense attorney has their own personal negotiation strategy. Descriptions of “typical” cocaine defendants vary, but most participants believe that evidence and criminal history are the most important factors for bargaining. Interviews further reveal that popular operationalization of “criminal history” may be lacking, there are several layers of control over assistant district attorneys, and practitioners favor the indeterminate sentencing structure currently in place. With regards to evidence, cash seized at arrest, a search being performed, and selling to the police are particularly relevant. Further, larger substance quantity predicts a more serious distribution charge but does not impact charge reductions. For sentence length, drug quantity’s main role seems to be to place offenders into statutory categories; once in these categories, quantity is less impactful. Few extralegal covariates are predictive of charge type decisions, charge reductions, or sentence length, though descriptive statistics show minority defendants to be overwhelming majority of this sample. This project highlights a need for further detailed data collection and replication in additional jurisdictions, the value of qualitative research, and a need to better understand the role of defendants and their attorneys in court outcomes. A number of policy implications can also be gleaned from these results, including a potential inspection of quantity ranges in controlled substance laws and negotiation training for defense attorneys.