Plea decision-making by attorneys and judges
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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.
KeywordsPlea bargaining Shadow of trial Decision-making Evidence Guilty pleas Plea discounts
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