Do extra-legal factors influence decisions to accept a plea bargain?
Guilty pleas account for up to 95 percent of convictions in criminal courts in America today. As Justice Kennedy wrote in a 2012 court decision, “Plea Bargaining is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system” (Missouri v. Frye).
In partnership with Bronx Defenders, we aimed to gain deeper insight into defendants’ perceptions of plea bargaining. We were especially concerned with the role that extra-legal factors—those that do not directly pertain to guilt, innocence, or the evidence and facts of a criminal case—might play in defendants’ decisions to accept or reject a plea bargain. In particular, we examined the role of pre-trial detention in encouraging individuals to take a plea deal when it is offered.
Working in both New York and California, we conducted in-depth, one-on-one interviews with 22 individuals charged with minor offenses, surveyed 20 individuals convicted of felony crimes, and interviewed twelve defense attorneys to gather their insights into the plea-bargaining process. In addition, we analyzed the relationship between pretrial detainment and adjudication outcomes using quantitative data from the State Court Processing Statistics (SCPS). The SCPS data detail a large sample of felony cases drawn from a representative sample of 40 large counties in the United States.
Our interviews suggest that criminal defendants do not go through a rational decision-making process when deciding whether or not to take a plea, weighing the likelihood of being found guilty and potential sentence against the deal that is offered. Instead, our interviewees described a variety of extra-legal factors that led them to plead guilty. This included feeling it was not financially feasible to remain in jail awaiting trial; because they believed their previous record would negatively affect them in decisions about bail or about where they would be detained; and wanting to avoid being held in unsanitary, loud, and crowded detention facilities. These factors combined to pressure many defendants into taking the plea deal that was offered, even when they felt that it was unfair or when they maintained their innocence.
Our quantitative analyses confirm what is suggested by our interviews: defendants who are held in custody before trial are significantly more likely to enter a guilty plea, even once we account for other factors. Accounting for other factors, we find that being held before trial increases the likelihood of being found guilty by roughly 11 percentage points.
Our primary conclusion is straightforward: Many criminal defendants feel as if pleading guilty is their only option. The burden of having to come back and forth to court, and the risk of winding up back in jail, is often enough to push defendants into taking a plea irrespective of the facts of their case. Particularly for those who cannot afford the loss of income that results from having to miss multiple days of work, the price of pre-trial detention may simply be too high. In this way, plea bargaining and pre-trial detention have broad implications for individuals and their families, for racial inequality, and for the accountability and fairness of the criminal justice system as a whole.
This project was made possible with funding from Princeton University and University of California, Berkeley