Calling your Bluff: How Prosecutors and Defense Attorneys Adapt Pleas Bargaining Strategies to Increased Formalization

Deirdre Bowen


This ethnographic work examines the inner workings of a highly formalized plea bargaining unit in a large urban prosecutor's office from the lawyers' point of view. Observations of forty-two plea negotiations between prosecutors and defense attorneys along with both formal and informal interviews reveal how the legal actors adapt to institutional rules in the pursuit of both efficiency and justice. In the face of ever increasing prosecutorial power, defense attorneys find ways to equalize the balance when cases do not fit the "normal crimes" model. Examination of negotiating strategy and discourse give further insight into whether prosecutors and defense attorneys behave differently under highly rationalized systems of plea-bargaining compared with traditional models previously studied.