Crimes, Widgets, and Plea Bargaining: An Analysis of Charge Content, Pleas, and Trials

58 Pages Posted: 13 Feb 2012 Last revised: 2 Jun 2015

Date Written: February 13, 2012


This article considers how the composition and gravamen of a charged crime can affect the parties’ willingness and ability to engage in plea bargaining. Most of the prevailing descriptions of plea bargaining ignore or discount the importance of charge content in plea negotiations. In fact, one leading commentator has likened crimes to widgets insofar as plea bargaining is concerned. In developing its counter-thesis, this article reviews seven years of federal conviction data, focusing on those crimes that produce the most and fewest trials relative to how often they are alleged; the most and fewest acquittals at trial; and the most and fewest plea bargains that involve a substantial alteration in charges.

Overall, the data demonstrate that the character of and circumstances that surround a particular offense can catalyze or frustrate plea bargaining. Similar information to that utilized in and gleaned from this study, it is also argued, can and should be considered in connection with the adoption of new crimes and the re-evaluation of existing offenses. This information would provide legislatures with insight into how a proposed crime is likely to be utilized, and how current crimes are being used.

Keywords: empirical, federal, crimes, plea bargaining, trials

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Graham, Kyle, Crimes, Widgets, and Plea Bargaining: An Analysis of Charge Content, Pleas, and Trials (February 13, 2012). California Law Review, Forthcoming, Santa Clara Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2004194, Available at SSRN: or

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