Panel Paper: Bargaining in the Shadow of the Trial?

Saturday, November 9, 2019
Plaza Building: Lobby Level, Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Daniel Bonneau and Bryan C. McCannon, West Virginia University

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 this framework. There has not been a test of the validity of the conceptual framework. We do so. We use a large data set of felony cases in Florida to estimate the plea discount received. Our 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, acts as our treated observations who experience an exogenous shock to their probability of conviction. We show that these individuals plea guilty to substantially longer sentences. This effect is especially strong for deaths of law enforcement officials who die via gunfire and are stronger when there is more internet search behavior out of local population. The reduction in the plea discount occurs across numerous serious crimes, but is essentially zero for less-serious crimes. 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.