Creating and Transferring Knowledge on Guilty Pleas

The National Science Foundation

This is an inter-disciplinary program of research and education on guilty plea comprehension and decision-making. Guilty pleas, which are the near-exclusive means of conviction for juvenile and adult defendants, must be entered knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. The primary methods to determine these requirements are through oral plea colloquies and written tender-of-plea forms. Despite their daily, widespread use and importance in safeguarding due process, almost no research has been conducted on these plea materials.

The research has three objectives. The first objective is to examine whether defendants across differing states and age groups are presented with similar components of plea materials (i.e., content) and age-appropriate levels of understandability. Equality under the law is paramount; if tender-of-plea forms are incomplete and/or incomprehensible to certain subsets of defendants, these defendants are disadvantaged. To carry out the first objective, state and county-level tender-of-plea forms will be obtained, and subjected to detailed content and comprehensibility analyses.

The second objective is to determine, via controlled experimentation, if plea understanding impacts decisions under varying circumstances and individual difference factors. The third objective is to determine if the rationales underlying plea decision, regardless of the decisions themselves, differ by these circumstances and factors. These two objectives will be achieved via one carefully conducted laboratory study. A total of 192 juveniles (aged 13-14, and 16-17) and young adults (18-24) will be invited to participate in a study on legal decision-making. 

New theoretical knowledge will be gained about the situational and dispositional factors that influence plea decision-making and the justifications behind those decisions. Although several studies have examined juveniles’ and adult’s adjudicative competence-related capabilities, only one empirical study (which did not include a developmental comparison; Kaban & Quinlan, 2004) has been published on plea forms/colloquies. The research and educational objectives have broad implications for juvenile and adult defendants, attorneys, scholars, and students. Findings from the two research studies will determine if the content of tender-of-plea forms and plea colloquies is complete and comprehensible (and whether this differs by locale and age) and the factors that can influence plea decisions. Decisions to plead guilty are required to be knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. 

The research can provide insight into whether these requirements are truly being met and identify the possible conditions when they are not. Transferring the knowledge gained from the research to the academic and legal communities is an important strength of this research. As social science is becoming more common in criminal courts (see Monahan & Walker, in press), findings from the proposed research have the potential to influence practice and policy, educate jurists, and safeguard rights.