Core 3: Courtroom Workgroup Decision-Making

Workgroup Decision-Making: Modeling Organizational Influences 

Summary. The Workgroup Decision Making: Modeling Organizational Influences core, led by Dr. Brian Johnson, will focus on how the courtroom workgroup as a social entity with its own norms and pressures that exists within a political and social context approaches plea bargaining. The group decision-making core of the RCN will focus on integrating the macro-theoretical insights from sociological perspectives like focal concerns with the more “actor focused” insights from economics, political science, psychology and law to stimulate creative approaches to the study of plea bargaining. The core will also focus on solving some of the methodological problems surrounding the study of how surrounding social environments affect the plea bargaining process of a given workgroup.

Full Description. The workgroup decision-making core of the proposed RCN will attempt to better understand how organizational and macro-social influences of the courtroom workgroup affect the exercise of court actor discretion in guilty plea processes in criminal courts. There is a long and productive legacy of research on criminal sentencing, but it has focused overwhelmingly on judicial decision-making and final sentencing outcomes, with relatively little work focusing explicitly on the plea process (Baumer, 2013, Ulmer, 2012). Moreover, much of the existing research on plea bargaining is now quite dated, conducted predominantly with data from the 1970s and 1980s (e.g. Albonetii, 1986; Eisenstein & Jacobs, 1977; McCoy, 1993, Smith 1986; Zatz 1985). As Shermer and Johnson (2010: 3) summarized, the available empirical literature on plea bargaining remains “dated, restricted to small samples, and focused on limited offense types in specific jurisdictions.” Although one of the defining characteristics of modern sentencing research has been “a deeper appreciation for the salience of macrosocial contexts” (Sampson and Lauritsen, 1997: 349), the burgeoning interest in organizational decision-making influences has yet to be incorporated into the study of plea outcomes. The workgroup decision-making core will apply theoretical perspectives on workgroup social dynamics, organizational constraints and broader environmental influences in group decision-making to the study of plea bargaining.

Existing perspectives on legal decision making emphasize that plea-bargaining decisions are made under time and information constraints that preclude complete knowledge of alternative courses of action (Albonetti, 1986; 1987). Uncertainty leads to the development of strategic means of managing uncertainty, which among other things include standard operating procedures, clear divisions of labor, and professional socialization (March & Simon, 1958). Because convictions are of paramount importance to prosecutors, organizational uncertainty places a high premium on negotiated guilty pleas, which require the cooperation of other workgroup members. Thus, group cohesion and positive group interactions are important goals that contribute to the routinization of standardized plea bargaining practices or “going rates” that are meted out for “normal” crimes (Sudnow, 1965). The group decision-making approach to plea bargaining emphasizes the importance of local legal culture, which incorporates the shared value orientation and implicit behavioral expectations of different members of the court workgroup. According to Eisenstein et al. (1988), these values include uncertainty reduction, group cohesion, effective case disposition, and “doing justice” (Eisenstein & Jacobs, 1979). Plea bargaining offers an essential pathway to high disposition rates for prosecutors, reduced penalties for defense counsel, and efficient case processing outcomes for judges concerned with heavy caseloads and docket backlogs.

Much of the available work in this vein focuses on the relationship between social stratification in society and social inequality in punishment, primarily examining racial, ethnic and gender disparities in prosecutorial case declinations and charging reductions (Spohn & Holleran, 2001; Katateladze et al. 2012; Kingsnorth et al. 1998; Shermer & Johnson, 2010). A largely separate literature has developed examining capital punishment, which has collected detailed data but has been used almost exclusively for studying racial disparity in death sentences (Paternoster, 1984). Overall, the workgroup decision-making approach offers important theoretical insights to the study of pleas that emphasizes group dynamics, social interactions, and institutional influences in negotiated outcomes, and it offers an important focus on potential social inequalities in punishment. These contributions are seldom incorporated into more formal economic and psychological models of plea bargaining. Empirical work in this area, though, has not been as methodologically sophisticated as research in other disciplines, particularly with regard to analytical issues involving selection bias, endogeneity, and causation. The group decision-making core of the RCN then offers unique macro-theoretical and conceptual insights that can be effectively joined with the methodological sophistication and analytical breadth of related work from economics, political science, psychology and law to stimulate more innovative, creative, and less isolated approaches that better incorporate the complex interactions of multiple court actors and their surrounding social environments into the formal study of plea bargaining.

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