CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Bonneau & McCannon on Testing Bargaining in the Shadow of Trial

Daniel Bonneau and Bryan C. McCannon (affiliation not provided to SSRN and West Virginia University - College of Business & Economics) have posted Bargaining in the Shadow of the Trial? Deaths of Law Enforcement Officials and the Plea Bargaining Process on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Plea bargaining is the cornerstone of the U.S. criminal justice system and the bargaining in the shadow of the trial framework, where the plea reached is driven primarily by the expected sentence arising from a trial, is the convention for applied economists. Criminologists and legal scholars challenge the "bargaining in the shadow of the trial" model's accuracy. There has not been a test of the validity of the conceptual framework. We provide one. We use a large data set of felony cases in Florida to estimate the plea discount received. Our novel identification strategy is to consider deaths of law enforcement officials, which we argue is a newsworthy, tragic event affecting a local community and making violent crime salient to the citizens who make up the potential jury pool. Those cases, unrelated to the death, but already in process at the time and in the same location as the death, act as our treated observations experiencing an exogenous shock to their probability of conviction.
We show that these individuals plea guilty to substantially longer sentences but, importantly, that the difference in the sanctions between guilty pleas and trial convictions reduces. This effect is especially strong for deaths of law enforcement officials who die via gunfire, when there is more internet search behavior by the local population, when the death occurs closer to the trial date, and when road dedications were made in the fallen officers names. The reduction in the plea discount is greater for serious crimes, but also exists for less-serious crimes. Thus, plea bargaining becomes relatively less generous. Theory does not predict, though, what will happen to the trial rate since tougher offers from the prosecutor should lead to more trials, but the heightened conviction probability should encourage negotiation. We find that the likelihood of a trial increases, consistent with the hypothesis that prosecutors are making less-generous plea offers. Thus, we provide strong evidence that plea bargaining occurs in the shadow of the trial.

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