Understanding Guilty Pleas

Final Conference:

The RCN on Understanding Guilty Pleas will host its final conference, October 13-14, 2016 in Arlington, VA. This is invitation-only event will highlight cutting-edge research on guilty pleas. To learn more about the conference and details about submission, click here.

What Do We Know About Guilty Pleas and Plea Bargaining?

What Is Plea Bargaining?
Plea bargaining is "the process through which a defendant pleads guilty to a criminal charge with the expectation of receiving some consideration from the state" (Neubauer & Fradella, 2011, p. 314). From the perspective of the defendant, the "reward" for pleading guilty may involve one or more of the following: having the charge reduced to a less serious one, having some counts of charges dropped, or having the sentence reduced below the maximum allowed by law.

Does Anyone Go To Trial Anymore?

More Guilty Pleas!
The share of criminal cases going to trial dropped sharply after a shift to tougher sentencing laws in the 1980s. Experts say that more defendants are accepting plea bargains rather than taking the risk of going to trial, which could result in harsher penalties.

Why Plea Bargain?
Plea bargaining expedites case processing and reduces uncertainty. It saves both parties time and monetary costs compared with trials. From the prosecutor's perspective, plea bargaining ensures conviction, which realizes the goals of retribution and deterrence. From the defendant's perspective, plea bargaining, under most circumstances, would lead to more lenient punishments than those that may be imposed if the defendant is convicted after a trial

Please visit the background readings on plea decision-making and additional resources pages for more information and a list of select research scholarship.

What is the RCN trying to accomplish?
Despite the obvious importance of guilty pleas in the U.S. system, there is precious little social science research on the process that leads to guilty pleas. There are at least three reasons for the dearth of research on criminal guilty pleas:

1. Data on the process that generates guilty pleas is hard to obtain. Since the mid-1980s, there have been large administrative data sets containing the population of convictions in the federal system and many state systems. However, information on the steps prior to conviction is not readily available and expensive to obtain. It is also hard to measure quality of evidence.

2. The plea process in the criminal context is conceptually more complicated than the analogous situation in civil court where both parties are bargaining over the same thing: money. In the criminal context, the bargaining is asymmetric, with the defendant trying to avoid punishment of various kinds, and the prosecutor trying to accomplish a variety of hard to specify goals, including crime control, re-election, and retribution.

3. The plea process by its nature involves a funneling of defendants from arrest to conviction. This funneling or selection is not random, and it creates selection bias in the estimates of key coefficients in regression models. Modeling selection bias is challenging, and has been the source of confusion. It is also difficult to model plea negotiations that involve a variety of different potential punishments, including incarceration, fines, collateral consequences and supervision.

Fortunately, there has been renewed interest in the process that generates guilty pleas, with particular attention given to prosecutorial discretion. This RCN seeks to build on this growing momentum to increase our understanding of the processes that generates guilty pleas through three concrete steps:

1. Bring together active scholars from economics, psychology, criminology, and law. For too long, scholars who study guilty pleas have been siloed within their disciplines. As a result, key theoretical approaches, such as the bargaining in the shadow of a trial model and the focal concerns perspective are virtually unheard of outside their respective disciplines. In the same way, innovative methodological advances and approaches are not readily shared across disciplinary boundaries.

2. Focus on understanding the decisions by prosecutors, defendants and defense attorneys, and the entire courtroom workgroup that drive the process that generates guilty pleas. Key insights will be highlighted in conferences and efforts will be made to develop these insights together with the key groups who generate data such as the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

3. Attract new scholars to the study of the process that generates guilty pleas. We plan on doing this in three discrete ways.

  • Raising the profile of the study of guilty pleas through white papers and conference symposia. We believe that this conversation will encourage established researchers who may be working in adjacent areas to consider ways that they can study the process that produces guilty pleas.

  • Inviting promising graduate students and assistant professors to the two planned research symposium in Albany to present their work, learn about cutting edge research in the field, and network with top scholars in the area.

  • Creating new research opportunities through collaborations among members of the network.


For more information about upcoming workgroups and conferences with plea decision-making research, please visit the events page.