Exploring pleas

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

At the start of my work in the Prosecution Project (tPP), I had little knowledge about most things involving court cases and sentencing. Many questions have occurred to me throughout my research, but a recurring one involves pleas.

What is a plea, why do people plead the way that they do, and how does that affect their sentencing? I was curious to know how they decided to plea – and whether their plea was truthful to the fact that they’ve committed the crime or not – as well as what their choice in plea decided for them in terms of sentencing.

So, why do defendants plead guilty? If a defendant pleads guilty, it can save them from sitting in a jail cell for many months or even years awaiting a trial to be scheduled and conducted. According to Above the Law, “…people who go to trial and are convicted get much heavier sentences than those who plea-bargain.” (2018) Another reason people accept plea bargains is that they’re offered lesser sentencing (such as probation) as a plea bargain. If they don’t take the offer, usually quickly, they stand the chance of being sentenced much heavier in trial.

Finally, people may choose to take a plea bargain because of their financial situation. According to HG Legal Resources, “lawyers will put in a significantly lower number of hours to effectuate a plea bargain than going to trial.” This would save the defendant a substantial amount of money as well as time, essentially making a plea bargain more attractive than spending the effort going to trial.

So, how does our data compare to national standards? In our clean (i.e. completed and verified) dataset of 1075 cases, 611 of those (56.8%) have pled guilty, 284 (26.4%) have pled not guilty, and the other 16.8% have pled one of the following: guilty but mentally ill, guilty on some counts but not on others, insanity, justifiable homicide, non-cooperating plea agreement, or they have been charged but not tried, their cases are still pending, or the plea is unknown.

According to the New York Times, “…97 percent of federal cases and 94 percent of state cases end in plea bargains, with defendants pleading guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence” (2012). Statistically, these percentages for all national and statewide defendants that have pled guilty are much higher than the 56.8% of our collected terrorism cases. Our data is atypical in this sense, with more defendants pleading not guilty or one of the aforementioned pleas than the national or state average.

Why may that be? Are people who are charged with terrorism-related charges more willing to plead not guilty because they know it is likely that they will be harshly sentenced either way, no matter what they plead? That speaks to a larger issue of its own, concerning how we (or the law) define terrorism and the sentences that come with it.

-Isabella Jackson


Goode, E. (2012, March 22). Stronger Hand for Judges After Rulings on Plea Deals. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/23/us/stronger-hand-for-judges-after-rulings-on-plea-deals.hty bml

HG Legal. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.hg.org/legal-articles/should-i-just-plead-guilty-and-avoid-a-trial-33486

Messina, T. (2018, July 23). Innocent People Who Plead Guilty. Retrieved from https://abovethelaw.com/2018/07/innocent-people-who-plead-guilty/

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