False Confessions: An Experimental Study of the Innocence Problem

21 Pages Posted: 19 Nov 2019

See all articles by Jason Ralston

Jason Ralston

Baylor University

Jason Anthony Aimone

Baylor University - Department of Economics

Charles M. North

Baylor University Department of Economics

Lucas Rentschler

Utah State University - Department of Economics and Finance

Date Written: November 8, 2019

Abstract

The innocence problem, which occurs when an innocent person is falsely accused or convicted of a crime, is impossible to study with empirical data, because “true” innocence and guilt are unobservable in the “real world.” In this study, we replicate the criminal justice system in the laboratory with real salient crimes and subjects acting in the roles of defendants, prosecutors, and jurors in order to study the innocence problem. In a controlled environment, we identify individuals who are falsely or accurately accused of a crime and track them through the plea-bargaining system. This allows us to explore how being falsely accused of a crime affects plea bargaining decisions. We find evidence for a substantial innocence problem, reflected by a high willingness of truly innocent defendants to accept plea bargains. However, they do so at a lower rate than the truly guilty suggesting preferences for truth telling, an irrelevant factor in most economic theory. We also find evidence that individual preferences over uncertainty influence plea decisions, as predicted by economic theory. Overall, we find that loss aversion has a significant positive influence on plea decisions and that the reduced propensity of the truly innocent to accept plea bargains is driven by an interaction between their preferences to avoid lying and their preferences over uncertainty.

Keywords: Experiment, Law, Plea Bargains, Risk Preferences, Loss Aversion

JEL Classification: C91, K42

Suggested Citation

Ralston, Jason and Aimone, Jason Anthony and North, Charles M. and Rentschler, Lucas, False Confessions: An Experimental Study of the Innocence Problem (November 8, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3483736 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3483736

Jason Ralston (Contact Author)

Baylor University ( email )

P.O. Box 98003
Waco, TX 76798-8003
United States

Jason Anthony Aimone

Baylor University - Department of Economics ( email )

P.O. Box 98003
Waco, TX 76798-8003
United States

Charles M. North

Baylor University Department of Economics ( email )

One Bear Place # 98003
Waco, TX 76798-8003
United States

Lucas Rentschler

Utah State University - Department of Economics and Finance ( email )

Logan, UT 84322-1400
United States

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