Core 2: Defense Decision-Making

Defense Decision-Making: Understanding the Defendant's Role 

Summary. The Defense Decision-Making: Understanding the Defendant’s Role core, led by Dr. Allison Redlich, focuses on the perspective of the defendant and the defense attorney. Most researchers have simply assumed that defendants are trying to minimize punishment, but this core explicitly focuses on other factors that might affect these decisions. This core also directly considers the principal-agent problem between lawyers and defendants. 

Full Description. In the defense decision-making core of the proposed RCN, the goal will be to understand the guilty-plea decision-making process -- and the surrounding circumstances that can impact the process -- primarily from the perspectives of the defendant and the defense attorney. It is estimated that every two seconds a defendant pleads guilty (Lynch, 2003), and thus, increased scholarly attention on the factors that influence defendant decisions to plead guilty is an important theoretical and practically significant goal. In addition, a significant portion of the research on pleas and related concepts (such as adjudicative competence and confessions) has focused on the role of the defendant in this process, and therefore, newly developed research can be better situated into this existing context.

Early research on defendant decision-making tended to focus on the guilt/innocence and sanction severity on the plea decision (e.g., Bordens, 1984; Gregory et al, 1978), finding (perhaps unsurprisingly) that defendants facing higher sanctions and who were guilty were more likely to accept pleas than their counterparts. Today’s research on defendant decision-making retains a focus on these two topics (e.g., Dervan & Edkins, 2013; Redlich, 2010; Tor, Gazal-Ayal, & Garcia, 2010) but has also asked new questions related to the dispositional and situational factors that can influence defendant and defense attorney plea decision-making. For example, some of the research questions being addressed by proposed core members include (but are not limited to): 1) how does defendant race influence defense attorney plea recommendations to their clients? (Edkins); 2) how do proximal and distal consequences affect decision-making? (Madon); 3) do defendants make rational, voluntary, and intelligent plea decisions? (Bibas, Redlich); 4) how does confession evidence influence the willingness to plead? (Kassin, Perillo); and 5) how does eyewitness evidence influence prosecutor and defense attorney plea recommendations? (Pezdek). The answers to such questions have served to identify critical deficiencies in the plea process, as well as the need for future research to find potential solutions to the deficiencies. For example, Edkins (2011) found that, all things equal, defense attorneys recommended longer sentences for African American clients than Caucasian ones, and Redlich and Summers (2012) found that actual defendants who just pled guilty did not making knowing and informed plea decisions, as legally proscribed. Proposed core members represent a variety of disciplines and experiences (psychology, criminal justice, law, federal prosecutor, and judicial clerk) and career stages (spanning from assistant to full professor). The overlap of already-asked questions with the other cores is also readily observable, including prosecutorial decision-making and the influence of race. Such overlap underlies the essence of the proposed RCN, demonstrating the natural proclivity of our invited researchers to step outside of their boundaries and explore other topics using a variety of literatures and methods. 

The defense decision-making core will undertake a number of activities, including conference symposia and plenary speakers, a special issue of a journal devoted to pleas, and a white paper relevant to defendants and defense attorneys. The goal of the white paper is to: a) describe the current state of the field relevant to defendant and defense plea decision-making (for example, the early and current research described above), b) identify specific questions in need of answering and c) identify key problems in need of solutions as well as promising avenues for moving research forward. Although to be fleshed out more fully within the first few months of the RCN, examples of priority topics for future research include how the n effect (Garcia & Tor, 2009) can explain how the increase in the number of defendants in recent years influenced the rise in the number of pleas, how other types of evidence (than eyewitness and confession) and social inequality factors influence plea decisions, and how multiple situational and dispositional factors—alone and in combination--affect the rationales underlying plea decisions, regardless of the decision itself. Finally, our white paper will weave together work spanning multiple disciplines and work closely with the other cores to produce a comprehensive picture of the factors that serve to influence defendant and defense attorney plea decision-making. 


For a full list of the RCN steering committee and network members, please visit the Network Members page.