ADOLESCENT PLEA BARGAINS: DEVELOPMENTAL AND CONTEXTUAL INFLUENCES OF PLEA BARGAIN DECISION MAKING
Fountain, Erika N.
Woolard, Jennifer L
Problem. Plea-bargaining is the most common conviction process in the United States yet there is a lack of research on how plea bargain decisions are made within the judicial process. By accepting a plea bargain, a defendant is ultimately agreeing to waive their right to trial. To submit a trial waiver, defendants must be competent to stand trial. Research suggests that compared to adults, adolescents are less likely to have the capacities required to be competent to stand trial. This study takes a first step toward examining adolescent capacities to make intelligent, knowing, and voluntary trial waiver decisions. Additionally, this study examines contextual factors (i.e., parental engagement) that are unique to juvenile defendants and that may play a role in adolescent decision making. Aims. This dissertation takes a mixed methods approach (using a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods) to accomplish two primary objectives. The primary objectives are to (1) understand the plea bargain process adolescents are expected to navigate and to (2) examine the knowing, intelligent, and voluntary nature of adolescent plea bargain decisions. Method. Through two studies this dissertation uses multiple research methods to evaluate the plea bargain process, the context in which decision making occurs, and the decision-making process adolescents engage in. Study one is exploratory and qualitative in nature and aims to accomplish primary objective one through interviews with 18 defense attorneys. Interviews cover topics such as the plea bargain process, duration and frequency of consultation, preparation for plea bargain decision making, and parental engagement. Study two accomplishes primary objective two by using semi-structured interviews with 72 justice-involved youth (ages 11-17) and one of each of their parents. Data was collected on plea-bargain decision-making, understanding of pleading, measures of intelligence, and basic demographics. General Results. Findings suggest that juvenile plea bargain decisions are made quickly, with limited information, and are motivated by short-term outcomes. Parents are involved in plea bargain discussions and, per attorneys, are essential to the plea. Finally, some adolescents were more likely than others to acquiesce to their parent’s decisions. Results and implications of this work will be discussed.
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