The Impact of Bench Trial Convictions on Sentencing

Thomas H. Cohen, Bureau of Justice Statistics

Research on criminal courts has shown that the mode of conviction (e.g., guilty plea, jury trial) has important implications on the length of sentence imposed. Most sentencing research has demonstrated that offenders convicted by jury trial are much more likely to receive a harsher sentence compared to offenders who plead guilty. While much scholarship has focused on jury trials, and their relationship to guilty pleas, little has been done to examine an alternative to either conviction approach: the bench trial.

In most sentencing research, a bench trial conviction is secondary to other scholarly topics. The few studies that have focused on bench trials, have demonstrated that they produce sentencing outcomes that are similar to guilty pleas (Johnson, 2003; Myers, 1981; Uhlam & Walker, 1979; Eisenstein and Jacob, 1977). The dated nature of most of this research and the importance of bench trials as a non-plea alternative to jury trials, gives rise to new calls for an examination of this topic. Are bench trial sentences comparable to their guilty plea counterparts? Are sentences generated from bench trials less severe compared to sentences that result from jury trials?

In order to address these questions, sentencing data from the State Court Processing Statistics (SCPS) database will be examined. SCPS is a biannual data collection series sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that tracks defendants arrested on a felony charge in 75 of the Nation's most populous counties for one year. The merged data file contains demographic, offense, prior record, pretrial release, conviction type, and sentencing information on 87,343 defendants arrested on a felony charge in 1990, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, and 2000. Consequently, the SCPS dataset allows for the utilization of multivariate techniques to compare the impact of guilty pleas, bench trials, and jury trials on sentence length, while controlling for other factors that can impact on sentencing outcomes.

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Updated 05/20/2006