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Improving the "Shadow of the Trial" model of plea bargaining

Nearly every criminal conviction in the U.S. is the result of an accepted plea deal. There are many reasons for this phenomenon, but it is mostly a response to the limited resources our court system possesses and helps free up space on courtroom dockets. Because of this, our system incentivizes guilty defendants to accept guilty pleas by offering a “discount” to the sentence of their crime, where they may serve less time, face a smaller fine, or even face a lesser charge if they accept a guilty plea rather than going to trial.

Each defendant has to weigh their options when accepting a plea deal. For example, a defendant could accept a plea deal, which offers the certainty of a smaller punishment, or they could go to trial, which offers the potential for acquittal, but also the chance that a harsher punishment may be handed down. How might a defendant make this choice? According to the Shadow of the Trial model of plea bargaining, we can predict the likelihood that someone will accept a plea deal by looking at two distinct aspects of the plea deal: the discounted sentencing, and the likelihood of conviction at trial (together called the Plea Differential). But do guilty and innocent defendants make these choices in the same way?

In ”Guilt status influences plea outcomes beyond the shadow-of-the-trial in an interactive simulation of legal procedures”, Wilford and colleagues wanted to expand the Shadow of the Trial model to also account for the guilt status of the defendant accepting the plea. The authors reasoned that it is likely that the guilt status of a defendant will impact their tendency to accept a plea deal beyond what could be accounted for by the plea differential. To test this, they presented participants with two plea bargaining scenarios, and manipulated their guilt status, their likelihood of conviction at trial, and the sentence discount if the plea deal was accepted.

Overall, the results of their study supported this new, expanded version of the Shadow of the Trial model. When the model was able to account for differences in plea acceptance between guilty and innocent participants (guilty participants are significantly more likely to accept a plea deal overall), the model was much better able to predict whether or not a participant would accept a plea deal. Although outside of a laboratory setting we are not always aware of which defendants are actually innocent or guilty, these findings will allow research to focus more intently on ways to minimize the number of innocent defendants pleading guilty out of fear of going to trial, while still incentivizing guilty defendants to accept a plea deal.

One very interesting thing to note about this study is the way in which the researchers chose to present participants with their plea scenarios. Each plea scenario was presented to participants through a new virtual simulation of legal proceedings, created by Wilford and colleagues (2021). In this simulation, participants are asked to make an avatar to reflect themselves and are brought through the entire process virtually from the crime to the arrest, to the plea-bargaining process. This is a new direction for studies of plea bargaining; instead of simply offering participants a vignette to read before making their decision, this simulation aims to bring participants further into the scenario, keeping their attention and making it more personal for them. This platform is free for researchers to use for their own studies, and is very customizable to allow for many parts of the trial process to be manipulated. It will be very exciting to see the projects that will come out of this new simulation methodology!

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