Lucian E. Dervan wanted to explore what compels the innocent to accept a guilty plea. So, the Southern Illinois University law professor involved students in an experiment. He partnered with Associate Professor Vanessa A. Edkins of the School of Psychology at the Florida Institute of Technology.
The finding: More than half of the students were willing to falsely admit guilt in return for a benefit. The researchers published their findings in the 2013 winter edition of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.
“The focus is to try and get a better understanding of just how powerful the incentives are to plead guilty,” Dervan told The Southern Illinoisan.
Across the nation, plea deals are accepted at a rate of around 95 percent in state and federal courts. There is evidence, based on information from the National Registry of Exonerations, that many who were wrongfully convicted pleaded guilty because they were afraid to fight their case at trial.
Minimum sentencing guidelines – a Class X felony in Illinois calls for at least six to 30 years in prison and up to 60 if there are aggravating factors – might compel the innocent to take a plea in exchange for a shorter sentence rather than risk a guilty verdict at trial and more time in prison.
Dervan questions whether other factors – or “collateral consequences” – come into play in the decision of whether to go to trial or not. Do defendants have money to pay for a lawyer? Can the family handle the rigors of trial? Is a job or professional license at stake that might be protected under a prosecutorial agreement?
“There’s all kinds of things at play here,” he said.
For the experiment, Dervan and Edkins observed 76 unknowing students as they were accused of cheating on a test under the pretense of a psychological study. Some of the students violated terms of the study by assisting another (a plant) during an individual portion of the study. Others did not, but were still accused of cheating.
Each was offered a choice: Admit guilt and lose compensation for the study or go before an academic review board and risk not only losing compensation but also be forced to enroll in an ethics course and have a faculty adviser told of the alleged offense. Other students faced lesser penalties at the onset – less time in the ethics course – to measure whether they were more likely to defend themselves.
Regardless of guilt or innocence, the majority of the students accepted the plea deal. Nearly all who were guilty, 89.2 percent, did so compared to the 56.4 percent who were innocent, the researchers reported.
Also, those facing harsher punishments, regardless of guilt or innocence, were 10 percent more likely to accept a plea.
“The study participants’ actions appear to be directly mimicking a phenomenon that has drawn much debate and concern in recent years: (T)he students appear to have been selecting ‘probation’ and immediate release rather than risking further ‘incarceration’ … ,” the researchers concluded. “In essence, the study participants simply wanted to go home.”
Dervan noted that plea-bargaining has its place within the judicial system. Without it, the backlog of cases would become overwhelming and resources – already challenged because of strapped budgets – would be that much more ineffective.
But it was never intended to systematically limit the right to trial provision of the Constitution, he said. A growing national discussion is under way both in the legal arena and among psychologists looking a defendant choices.
Dervan, for instance, is now working on a new study that builds on the first by adding collateral consequences like students losing student aid or their housing as penalties. Another study being planned on an international scale would compare cultural influences on plea deals.
“It is important that plea bargaining is done voluntarily, and that was the intent of the (U.S.) Supreme Court when it permitted plea bargaining.
“One of the focuses of plea bargaining research today is to make sure that the manner in which the plea bargaining system works is one that really does give defendants a choice and does therefore preserve their constitutional right to trial,” Dervan said.