The Prisoners’ (Plea Bargain) Dilemma

4 Pages Posted: 6 Apr 2010

See all articles by Oren Bar-Gill

Oren Bar-Gill

Harvard Law School

Omri Ben-Shahar

University of Chicago Law School

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: April 6, 2010


Prosecutors routinely use plea bargaining to secure convictions without having to take defendants to trial. This is of great benefit to prosecutors, who have only a small fraction of the resources necessary to prosecute those cases. This raises a question: why do defendants acquiesce and voluntarily plead guilty, often accepting harsh sentences? Had defendants refused to settle, many of them would not have been charged or would have escaped with lenient sanctions. This article argues that such collective stonewalling requires coordination among defendants, which is difficult if not impossible to attain. Moreover, prosecutors, by strategically timing and targeting their offers, can create conflicts of interest among defendants, frustrating any attempt at coordination. This realization suggests that, despite the common view to the contrary, the institution of plea bargains does not improve the well-being of defendants.

Suggested Citation

Bar-Gill, Oren and Ben-Shahar, Omri, The Prisoners’ (Plea Bargain) Dilemma (April 6, 2010). Regulation, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 42-45, Spring 2010. Available at SSRN:

Oren Bar-Gill (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Omri Ben-Shahar

University of Chicago Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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