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Does It Pay To Plead Guilty? Differential Sentencing and the Functioning of Criminal Courts

NCJ Number
Law and Society Review Volume: 16 Issue: 1 Dated: (1981-1982) Pages: 45-70
Date Published
26 pages

Examination of data from three California counties, as well as consideration of various theoretical concerns, shows that sentence differentials between trial convictions and guilty pleas are likely to characterize jurisdictions that induce defendants to plead guilty.


Disposition patterns for robbery and burglary arrestees in three large California jurisdictions were analyzed for 1974-78. There were 1,759 cases from San Bernardino County, 2,514 from San Francisco, and 2,520 from Santa Clara County. In addition to the original charge and the mode of disposition, information was obtained on measures of the final conviction charge, the type of attorney who handled the case, the defendant's previous record, and the standard demographic variables of age, race, and sex. The major dependent variable was State prison/no State prison. Analysis procedures involved the use of multidimensional contingency tables. Mode of disposition was compared with sentence while simultaneously controlling for arrest charge and the defendant's previous record. Although the small number of cases in some of the trial categories means the relationships do not always qualify as statistically significant, the overall pattern of the results is remarkably consistent. In only two instances do prison rates for trial cases fail to exceed prison rates for guilty pleaders by at least 10 percentage points. Tabular data and 32 references are provided.

Date Published: January 1, 1982