Despite a constitutional right to a jury trial, more than 94% of criminal convictions in the United States result from guilty pleas, not jury verdicts. Even innocent people, those who did not commit the crimes of which they are accused, can plead guilty – and they do...
To examine whether COVID-19 exacerbated the innocence problem in guilty pleas among a larger sample of potential defendants, we used a computerized simulation platform of legal procedures funded by the National Science Foundation and developed at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. More than 700 U.S. adults agreed to participate in our study, and we randomly assigned them to be either innocent or guilty of stealing a pair of sunglasses. In the simulation, all participants were detained before trial, then offered a plea deal to be immediately released.
Among both guilty and innocent conditions, we further randomly informed half of the participants about the complications related to COVID-19 – that the jail was currently having an outbreak of coronavirus and court dates had been pushed back because of the pandemic.
The results confirmed that both guilty and innocent participants were more likely to plead guilty when warned of the increased complications posed by COVID-19. Further, innocent participants ranked the pandemic as a more important factor in shaping their decision to plead than guilty participants.