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Prosecutorial Passion, Cognitive Bias, and Plea Bargaining

Alafair S. Burke

Hofstra University - Maurice A. Deane School of Law

Marquette Law Review, Symposium, 2007
Hofstra Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-31

The standard account in support of plea bargaining is that it reflects both likely trial and sentencing outcomes, but a growing literature explores the ways in which plea negotiations are influenced by factors other than the likelihood of conviction and the probable post-trial sentence. For example, structural factors such as limited pre-trial discovery, attorney self-interest and incompetence, pretrial detention, and determinate sentencing can affect the parties' willingness and power to negotiate. Several scholars have also observed the ways that psychological and cognitive factors, such as overconfidence, denial, information barriers, framing, anchoring, and risk aversion, can influence plea bargaining. Previous examinations of the influence of cognitive bias on plea bargaining have focused primarily on the decision making of defendants. This Article, a contribution to Marquette Law Review's symposium on plea bargaining, seeks to contribute an additional dimension to the understanding of plea bargaining dynamics by exploring influences on the decision making of prosecutors.

A central tenet of plea bargaining is that prosecutors are willing to negotiate settlements to free up trial resources for other cases. Accordingly, the first step in this Article's exploration of prosecutorial decision making in plea bargaining is an examination of the factors that drive a prosecutor's prioritization of cases. Specifically, Part I argues that prosecutors prioritize cases in part by the amount of passion they feel in each case. Prosecutorial passion - how much a prosecutor "cares" about a case - is an undefined and unexplored factor in the current literature, and reflects subjective determinations beyond the strength of a case's evidence or its likely post-conviction sentence.

Part II explores the ways that prosecutorial passion might affect plea bargaining. First, passion might create a conscious aversion to plea bargaining in prosecutors. Second, even when a passionate prosecutor believes she desires settlement, passion might trigger or exaggerate cognitive biases that will make settlement less likely, such as selective information processing, loss aversion, framing, overoptimism, hindsight bias, anchoring, and the sunk cost fallacy. Part III concludes with some brief thoughts regarding the implications of prosecutorial passion for plea bargaining reform.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 28

Keywords: Cognitive bias, bounded rationality, behavioral economics, plea bargaining, negotiation, prosecutorial discretion, prosecutorial decisionmaking

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Date posted: October 4, 2007 ; Last revised: July 23, 2012

Suggested Citation

Burke, Alafair S., Prosecutorial Passion, Cognitive Bias, and Plea Bargaining. Marquette Law Review, Symposium, 2007; Hofstra Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-31. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1019348

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Alafair S. Burke (Contact Author)
Hofstra University - Maurice A. Deane School of Law ( email )
121 Hofstra University
Hempstead, NY 11549
United States
516-463-4243 (Phone)
516-463-4800 (Fax)

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