Is Pleading Really a Bargain?


  • Thanks to Stephanos Bibas, John MacDonald, and William Stuntz for very useful discussion and suggestions and to Daniel Abrams for extensive discussion of the theoretical model. Thanks also to participants of the Cornell “Judgment by the Numbers” Conference for their excellent comments and discussion. Superb research assistance was provided by Kathy Qian.

University of Pennsylvania Law School and Wharton, email:


A criminal defendant's decision of whether to accept a plea bargain is one with serious consequences both for his or her immediate and long-term future. Conventional wisdom suggests that defendants are better served by entering into a plea bargain, to avoid what is known as the “trial penalty.” In this article I present evidence that this notion is likely mistaken. In OLS regressions using data from Cook County state courts, I find that a risk-neutral defendant seeking to minimize his or her expected sentence would do substantially better by rejecting a plea bargain. I also employ an IV approach to the question and, while the instrument is weak, the results are consistent with the OLS: defendants are better off going to trial.