Dissertation Research

Dissertation Title: Rationales Underlying and Shaping Plea Decision-Making: Interviews with Defendants, Defense Attorneys, and Prosecutors

My dissertation research examines plea decision-making through semi-structured interviews with defendants, defense attorneys, and prosecutors to investigate how defendants perceive and understand the choices and imperatives with which they are faced as they navigate the legal system. Specifically, the focus of this research is to triangulate and examine the factors affecting, and rationales underlying, the plea decision from the points of view of the defendant, defender, and prosecutor. In June 2016, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded this dissertation a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (DDRIG) (NSF Award #1625527; $11,399).

ABSTRACT

The reality is that “criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” as Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in Lafler v. Cooper (2012). Despite this heavy reliance on plea bargaining in the U.S. criminal justice system, the nature of plea bargain decisions remains elusive. Although there has been influential and important research in which defendants and court actors were interviewed about the plea decision process, this research was mostly conducted 30 to 40 years ago about a different court system than the one that exists today. Since then, much about courts and the process and prevalence of plea bargaining has changed. This project begins to fill this gap through semi-structured interviews with defendants, defense attorneys, and prosecutors to investigate how defendants perceive and understand the choices and imperatives with which they are faced as they navigate the legal system. The broader impact of this project is to shed light on how internal (individual-specific) and external (system-specific) rationales affect plea decision-making and how perceptions of defendants’ rationales can inform the prosecutor’s plea offer and the defense attorney’s advice to their clients, as well as their negotiating strategies with one another.

The focus of this research is to triangulate and examine the factors affecting, and rationales underlying, the plea decision from the points of view of the defendant, defender, and prosecutor. Whereas interviews with defendants will examine their experiences and perceptions surrounding a specific case in which they pled guilty, defense attorneys and prosecutors will be interviewed more generally about their perceptions of generic defendants’ rationales for their plea decisions as well as how those perceptions inform either the plea offer or the advice about accepting the offer. All interviews will be semi-structured, include parallel hypothetical scenarios for comparison between the three groups, and incorporate both open- and closed-ended questions to ensure a similar and comparable question-response structure. These open-ended responses will be examined using an inductive and systematic approach, and will be rooted in grounded and phenomenological theories. This will allow for observation and documentation of multiple possible patterns, themes, and concepts that account for variability in plea bargaining processes. In addition, to make this research more generalizable and comparable with research from several decades ago, the co-principal investigator will also use past research related to plea decision-making to develop a reliable coding scheme with which to code and analyze the open-ended interview responses in this study. Findings will be disseminated as a series of practitioner and scholarly articles, reports, and conference presentations portraying the rationales, factors, and perceptions underlying plea decision-making. Ultimately, this research will allow for further examination into legal decision-making, attorney-client and defender-prosecutor relationships, and procedural justice as it relates to contextualizing the plea negotiation process.

 

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