Disentangling the influences of defense attorney plea recommendations

Quattrone Center research fellow Johanna Hellgren has co-authored a paper that examines how defense attorneys make plea recommendations.

Despite a constitutional right to a jury trial, between 95 and 98% of criminal convictions in the United States result from guilty pleas, a number that has climbed steadily in recent years. In a paper published in Psychology, Public Policy and Law, Johanna Hellgren, a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, and Saul M. Kassin, professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, examined the extent to which defense attorneys’ plea recommendations are driven by their beliefs in the defendant’s guilt or innocence and by estimates of the probability-of-conviction at trial—and implications for defendants.

Johanna Hellgren
Quattrone Center research fellow Johanna Hellgren. (Image: Penn Law News)

“As part of responsible advocacy, criminal defense attorneys communicate plea offers, investigate the case, and advise their clients accordingly, generally based on the apparent strength of evidence against their client,” says Hellgren. “Through our research, we sought to untangle whether strong evidence in an individual case drives the recommendation to accept a plea offer because it suggests that the defendant is factually guilty or innocent, because it signals a conviction or acquittal at trial, or, due to a combination of these factors.”

Since the mid-1920s, plea bargaining—a process that incentivizes defendants to plead guilty to obtain significant “plea discounts”—has served as the standard method through which criminal cases in the United States are resolved, with only about 2–3% of cases resulting in a full jury trial. Despite theory and research suggesting that defendants are often advised to plead guilty “in the shadow of the trial,” a theory that hinges on the expectations of trial outcomes, Hellgren and Kassin found that attorneys base their plea recommendations largely on pragmatic considerations.

Hellgren and Kassin found that while a confession increased the perceptions of the defendant’s guilt, attorneys were more likely to recommend accepting the plea offer only when that confession was ruled admissible at trial. In the second study, the exculpatory eyewitness testimony increased perceptions of innocence, but attorneys were more likely to recommend rejecting the offer in favor of trial only when that testimony was ruled admissible at trial. The defendant’s assertions of innocence to defense counsel had little effect. They concluded that the system often leaves defense attorneys with little choice but to rely on pragmatic considerations when assisting their clients.

Read more at Penn Law News.