Guilty plea decisions

We collect data to better understand how defendants in the criminal justice system decide to plead guilty. People tend to think that defendants only plead guilty when they are guilty, but research shows that actually some people plead guilty when they are unsure whether they have committed an offence (for example because they are unsure whether they have a defence) or even when they know that they are innocent. It is therefore very important to understand when and why defendants are pleading guilty. If you are a defendant who has pled guilty when innocent and would like to share your experiences with us, please get in touch.

Below is some of our existing data on guilty plea decision making. More data will be added as it becomes available.

For our publications on guilty pleas, visit our publications page.

Case data

In England and Wales, 60 – 70% of defendants appearing in the Crown Court plead guilty and approximately 75-80% of defendants appearing in the Magistrates Court plead guilty (in cases prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service).

The data currently available for 2020 is for the Crown Court and suggests a significant increase in guilty pleas in the first quarter of 2020. This increase may be related to the increasing use of technology in the trial process (for more information see our Justice Online wiki).

Crown Court overall data: Ministry of Justice Criminal Court Statistics Quarterly April – June 2020, Crown Court u18 data: Freedom of Information Request Response (Ministry of Justice), Magistrates Court data: Crown Prosecution Service Annual Reports 2016-2017, and 2019-2020.

Case studies from our Miscarriages of Justice Registry show that people who are innocent do plead guilty in real cases in England and Wales.

Guilty Plea Miscarriages of Justice

Survey data

We have surveyed lawyers and defendants in the United States and in England and Wales to understand when and why defendants plead guilty.

Our research has specifically examined perceptions of how often innocent people plead guilty, and pressures (other than guilt) that may cause defendants to plead guilty.

Some survey results are reported in several of Dr. Helm’s publications. See Helm et al., 2017 and Helm 2019.

Generally, survey results suggest that a non-trivial proportion of defendants who plead guilty are or may be innocent. The graph below shows data from one study in which we interviewed 90 legal professionals, and asked them to estimate the proportion of defendants who plead guilty but are actually innocent.

Data from the same study also provides insight into the pressures defendants face that may lead to guilty pleas from innocent defendants.

Interviews with legal professionals (N=90) in England and Wales suggest that defendants, including innocent defendants, can end up feeling pressured to plead guilty, for example, as a result of:

  • the significant time and cost that can be involved in trial,
  • the ability to secure release from custody by pleading guilty, and / or
  • the ability to avoid a custodial sentence by pleading guilty.

Opinions of legal professionals

The three quotes below are taken from R. K. Helm, ‘Constrained waiver of trial rights’ (2019) 46(3) Journal of Law and Society 423. If you have additional feedback on guilty plea decisions or procedure, you can add it to our database by hitting the “edit” button. We review all feedback we receive.

People who have no fixed abode rarely get bail – the court will take the view that they are unlikely to come back to court on bail. So, if they plead not guilty their case is adjourned for a trial and they are remanded to prison. Frequently the sentence they would serve if they pleaded guilty is less than the time they spend on remand.

I have advised clients in this situation [where a guilty plea can secure release from custody] as the time it takes to get to trial these days means this is not an uncommon scenario. Most defendants value their freedom and take a pragmatic approach and plead guilty. Liberty is a highly persuasive factor in a defendant’s choice to plead.

There is clearly a risk that defendants plead guilty to avoid the court process and the delay that it involves.

Last edited 22 December 2020 | 12:22 pm | Rebecca Helm
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We are also drawing on survey data to provide insight into particular vulnerabilities that might be faced by children when deciding whether to plead guilty.

Research in cognitive psychology shows important ways in which the decision-making of children systematically differs from the decision-making of adults. These differences mean that children are particularly vulnerable when making decisions relating to admissions of guilt.

Our experimental work highlights unique vulnerabilities in children when making plea decisions and suggests that children may be more prone to pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit due to the way that they process information and decision-options (Helm et al, 2018). For an analysis of the legal consequences of these vulnerabilities see Helm 2021.

We are currently collecting data from legal professionals and children who have been involved in the justice system in an Economic and Social Research Council Funded project seeking to understand when and why children plead guilty and how reform may protect children accused of crime. The data below is taken from a pilot study where we asked around 20 lawyers what is important to adult defendants and what is important to child defendants when deciding whether to plead guilty. The data highlight potentially important differences in plea decision-making.

If you have experience of guilty pleas in children that you would be willing to share with us as part of this project please contact us. Below is some initial pilot data from interviews with lawyers that provides some initial insight into when and why children and adults plead guilty.

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Experimental Data

In our experimental work we examine the conditions under which innocent defendants are likely to plead guilty, and pressures that defendants may face that are likely to influence innocent as well as guilty defendants. Our work focuses on plea systems in England and Wales and the USA and is based on psychological theory and quantitative data analyses. These analyses can help inform legal procedure that will maximise guilty pleas from guilty defendants and minimize guilty pleas from innocent defendants. The analyses can also help identify conditions under which defendants who are innocent would be likely to have pled guilty.

Our existing work suggests children and a certain sub-group of adults are more prone to pleading guilty to crimes that they did not commit and making decisions that do not reflect underlying values (see Helm & Reyna 2017 and Helm, Reyna, Franz, & Novick, 2018).

Dr. Helm is currently a co-investigator on an American Psychology and Law Society funded project using computational modelling to advance our understanding of guilty plea decision-making. A long-term goal of this work is to generate policy recommendations that will maintain a high rate of guilty pleas among the factually guilty, while preserving defendant autonomy and minimising the risk that innocent defendants will plead guilty. The project is in collaboration with Dr. Tina Zottoli, Dr. Vanessa Edkins, Dr. Michael King, and Dr. Michael Bixter.

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