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Plea-Bargaining Law: the Impact of Innocence, Trial Penalty, and Conviction Probability on Plea Outcomes


Despite the prevalence of guilty pleas, we know relatively little about factors that influence the decision to plead. Replicating and extending Dervan and Edkins’ Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 103, 1-48., (2013), we conducted two experiments to examine the effects of guilt status, trial penalty, and conviction likelihood on plea outcomes using an adaptation of a high-stakes cheating paradigm. Students were led to believe that they were participating in a study examining team versus individual problem solving. Those randomly assigned to a guilty condition were induced to cheat on an individual problem by a study confederate (in clear violation of the study instructions). All participants were later accused of cheating in the research study, and were offered the analogue of a plea deal in an academic context. Across both experiments, guilty participants were significantly more likely to plead guilty than innocent participants. In Experiment 2, conviction probability affected plea rates only among the innocent. The trial penalty manipulation had no significant effect on plea rates. Reasons for pleading guilty differed between the innocent and the guilty, whereas the plea rejection rationales were similar across the two groups. Overall, this research highlights several avenues for further research aimed at improving the current system of pleas to reduce false guilty pleas.

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  1. We chose to exclude everyone with psychological research lab experience due to the increased likelihood that they would be familiar with studies involving deception. We also felt they would not have perceived the consequence of working in the lab as negatively as most people.

  2. Experiment 1 included eight female experimenters. Experiment 2 included twelve experimenters: nine were female and three were male. All of the experimenters (for both experiments) underwent extensive training including three ~90-min sessions supervised by the lead author.

  3. If the descriptive odds of accepting the plea bargain are used to compute the odds ratio, it will differ slightly from the value produced by the logistic regression model. This discrepancy is due to the logistic regression model computing values for which the effects of all other model predictors are removed.


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This work was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to the first author under Grant no. 202–18–94-00.

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Correspondence to Miko M. Wilford.

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The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Ethics Approval

Both of the experiments described in this manuscript received approval from the Institutional Review Board at Iowa State University (IRB ID: 11–320).

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All participants provided written consent to participate in the experiments (following the procedures approved by the Institutional Review Board at Iowa State University).

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All authors have reviewed the current version of the manuscript and consent to potential publication in the American Journal of Criminal Justice. Also, while data from this manuscript has not been previously published, portions of the data were presented at annual meetings of the American Psychology-Law Society.

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Wilford, M.M., Wells, G.L. & Frazier, A. Plea-Bargaining Law: the Impact of Innocence, Trial Penalty, and Conviction Probability on Plea Outcomes. Am J Crim Just 46, 554–575 (2021).

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  • Behavior
  • Criminal justice system
  • Decision making
  • Law
  • Psychology