Approximately 95 % of convictions in the United States are the result of guilty pleas. Surprisingly little is known about the factors which judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys consider in these decisions. To examine the legal and extralegal factors that legal actors consider in plea decision-making, we replicated and improved upon a 40-year-old study by asking legal actor participants to review a variety of case factors, and then make plea decisions and estimate sentences for pleas and trials (upon conviction).
Over 1,500 defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges completed an online survey involving a hypothetical legal case in which the presence of three types of evidence and length of defendant criminal history were experimentally manipulated.
The manipulated evidence impacted plea decisions and discounts, whereas criminal history only affected plea discounts (i.e., the difference between plea and trial sentences). Defense attorneys considered the largest number of factors (evidentiary and non-evidentiary), and although legal actor role influenced the decision to plead, it did not affect the discount.
In replicating a landmark study, via technological advances not available in the 1970s, we were able to increase our sample size nearly six-fold, obtain a sample representing all 50 states, and include judges. However, our sample was nonrepresentative and the hypothetical scenario may or may not generalize to actual situations. Nonetheless, valuable information was gained about the factors considered and weighed by legal actors.
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We note here that other ‘shadow’ models have been put forth, such as Standen’s (1993) “shadow of the guidelines” and Lacasse and Payne (1999)’s “shadow of the judge.” Nonetheless, these models share the same basic underlying premise that decision-making is made on the expectations of trial/sentencing outcomes.
The average amount of time spent on the survey for all completers was 21.94 min. The amount of time spent did not differ significantly across roles (p = .51).
There were four manipulation-check questions, each asking the participant whether each type of manipulated evidence was present or absent. Respondents were given the options of “Yes,” “No,” and “I don’t know.” An answer was considered correct if the participant (1) was in a condition in which the evidence was present and answered “Yes,” (2) was in a condition in which the evidence was not present and answered “No,” or (3) did not choose to view the folder for that particular type of evidence and answered, “I don’t know.”
In the defendant’s prior record, long condition, participants read that the defendant had: (1) Three juvenile contacts, one at age 14 for assault, two at age 16, both for unlawful entry; disposition unknown, (2) Arrest for burglary, age 18; convicted, 1 year of probation; (3) Arrest for robbery, age 19; convicted, 2 years; (4) Arrest for attempted rape, age 21; dismissed; and (5) Arrest for robbery, age 24, convicted, 3 years. In the defendant’s prior record, short condition, participants read that the defendant had: (1) one juvenile contact at age 14 for malicious mischief, disposition unknown, and (2) one arrest at age 18 for disorderly conduct, dismissed. These were the same as used in Miller et al. (1978).
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Redlich, A.D., Bushway, S.D. & Norris, R.J. Plea decision-making by attorneys and judges. J Exp Criminol 12, 537–561 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-016-9264-0