In 2010, the University at Albany (SUNY) hosted an NSF-funded symposium on the Past and Future of  Empirical Sentencing Research.  This symposium grew out of a working group in criminology devoted to identifying the next frontier of sentencing research.  A consensus emerged from that Symposium on the need for a focused interdisciplinary effort to better understand the process that generates convictions (i.e. guilty pleas).  This consensus has now been expressed in a number of papers published from the symposium or in reaction to the symposium (Baumer, 2010; Bushway, 2012; Bushway & Forst, 2012; Ulmer, 2012). 

Building on this consensus, four scholars from different disciplines – Shawn Bushway,  Brian Johnson, Anne Morrison Piehl and Allison Redlich – have come together to create a focused three year effort known as The Research Coordination Network on Understanding Guilty Pleas.  Funded by the National Science Foundation, the explicit goal of this RCN is to foster new research on the process that generates guilty pleas. 

The founding idea is that outcomes in the criminal justice system are the result of decisions by actors.  As a result, we have organized ourselves around three cores –

1) Researching Prosecutorial Decision-Making by Modeling the Process that Generates Plea Bargains (Co-PI: Anne Piehl)

Summary. The Prosecutorial Decision Making: Modeling the Process that Generates Plea Bargains core, led by Dr. Anne Piehl, grapples with one of the central puzzles of plea bargaining in the criminal justice context – what motivates prosecutors and judges. There is a rich literature in law and economics on bargaining in a civil context, where both parties are bargaining over money. However, the concerns of the prosecutor and judge are not as obvious in the criminal case, since these actors do not gain anything directly from the defendant. This core focuses on the purposes and institutional factors that drive prosecution using insight from economics, behavioral economics/psychology, sociology and political science. This core also focuses on the difficulties of empirical modeling for a process where samples are always being selected non-randomly from a population as part of the decision process.  For more information, please visit the Prosecutorial Decision-Making page.

2) Researching Defense Decision-Making to Understand the Defendant's and Defense Attorney's Role (Co-PI: Allison Redlich)

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. For more information, please visit the Defense Decision-Making page. 

3) Researching Workgroup Decision-Making by Modeling Organizational Influences (Co-PI: Brian Johnson). 

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. For more information, please visit the Workgroup Decision-Making page.

Each core has a steering committee to help organize the work of the core, and a larger network of scholars interested in the topic.  The RCN will culminate with another Symposium at the University at Albany in 2016 which will highlight the work done by the RCN, and mark the beginning of what we hope will be a new era of research on the process that generates guilty pleas.