The Trial Penalty: How Severe Is It and What Accounts For It?

Candace C. McCoy, Rutgers University
Thomas Cohen, Pretrial Services Resource Center

The trial penalty is the difference in sentencing severity imjposed when a defendant pleads guilty compared to the sentence imposed on the same defendant if convicted after trial. Although most observers agree that assessing a trial penalty is appropriate, when it becomes so harsh as to convice defendants to relinquish the right to trial, its magnitude becomes coercive. This research assesses the magnitude of the trial penalty using data from the State Court Processing Statistics Project 2000. It then explores factors other than mode of disposition (plea/trial) to explore what might account for the observed variation. We find not only that the trial penalty exists, but that it often is the only factor that accounts for sentencing severity amounting to three or four times the prison sentence that the defendant would have received had he pled guilty. Policy implications are discussed.

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Updated 05/20/2006