Using Plea Procedures to Combat Denial and Minimization

JUDGING IN A THERAPEUTIC KEY, Bruce J. Winick & David B. Wexler, eds., 2003

9 Pages Posted: 18 Dec 2003

See all articles by Stephanos Bibas

Stephanos Bibas

University of Pennsylvania Law School


Criminal defendants, who may be ashamed of their acts and feel guilty, are often loath to admit guilt to others or even themselves. Thus, many enter Alford or nolo contendere pleas, which refuse to admit guilt but accept punishment as if guilty. Defense lawyers and many judges and prosecutors like these pleas because they are efficient and avoid the ordeals of trials.

This book chapter criticizes Alford and nolo contendere pleas, because their efficiency comes at a steep price. The defendants who most want to use these pleas are in deepest denial, but they are the ones who most need to confront and admit guilt as a first step towards moving past it. The legal system can challenge their denials at trial, or it can allow guilty defendants to persist in it. Guilty defendants who remain in denial resist successful treatment and are much more likely to reoffend. They also deny victims closure, catharsis, and vindication. And they frustrate society's desire for clear, unambiguous resolutions and moral messages. For those defendants who cannot or will not admit guilt, the law should insist on jury trials, to vindicate the innocent and confront the guilty defendants. In short, jury trials are valuable morality plays. Alford and nolo contendere pleas short-circuit this process, exalting efficiency at the expense of key therapeutic and moral goals of the criminal justice system.

Keywords: Alford, nolo contendere, no contest, plea, guilty plea, plea bargain, Alschuler, criminal, criminal procedure, sex offender, sex offense

JEL Classification: K14, K41

Suggested Citation

Bibas, Stephanos, Using Plea Procedures to Combat Denial and Minimization. JUDGING IN A THERAPEUTIC KEY, Bruce J. Winick & David B. Wexler, eds., 2003, Available at SSRN: or

Stephanos Bibas (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
215-746-2297 (Phone)


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