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Plea Bargaining Outside the Shadow of Trial

Stephanos Bibas

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Harvard Law Review, June 2004

Plea-bargaining literature predicts that parties strike plea bargains in the shadows of expected trial outcomes. In other words, parties forecast the expected sentence after trial, discount it by the probability of acquittal, and offer some proportional discount. This oversimplified model ignores how structural distortions skew bargaining outcomes, causing them to diverge from trial outcomes.

Part I of this Article explores the various structural forces that warp plea bargains. Agency costs, attorney compensation and workloads, resources, sentencing and bail rules, and information deficits all skew bargaining.

In addition, psychological biases and heuristics warp judgments. Part II applies recent research from behavioral law and economics and cognitive psychology to critique plea bargaining. Overconfidence, denial, discounting, risk preferences, loss aversion, framing, and anchoring all affect bargaining decisions. Skilled lawyers can partly counteract some of these problems, but they can also overcompensate. The oversimplified shadow-of-trial model of plea bargaining needs to be supplemented by a structural-psychological perspective. On this perspective, uncertainty, money, self-interest, and demographic variation greatly influence plea bargains.

Part III explores how to respond to the various structural and psychological influences that warp plea bargains. Reforming systems of defense counsel, bail rules, and the structure of sentencing rules, and increasing use of mediators and judges in bargaining could ameliorate some of these influences. Other problems, such as demographic variations in psychology, are very difficult to correct. These influences cast light on how civil and criminal bargaining differ in important respects.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 85

Keywords: Plea bargain, guilty plea, shadow of trial, Easterbrook, Scott, Stuntz, Alschuler, Schulhofer, negotiation, settlement, dispute resolution, psychology, behavioral law and economics, Kahneman, Tversky

JEL Classification: K14, K41, C78, D8

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Date posted: November 23, 2005  

Suggested Citation

Bibas, Stephanos, Plea Bargaining Outside the Shadow of Trial. Harvard Law Review, June 2004. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=464880 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.464880

Contact Information

Stephanos Bibas (Contact Author)
University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )
3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
215-746-2297 (Phone)
HOME PAGE: http://www.law.upenn.edu/cf/faculty/sbibas/
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