Do Detainees Plead Guilty Faster? A Survival Analysis of Pretrial Detention and the Timing of Guilty Pleas

AuthorNick Petersen
Published date01 August 2020
Date01 August 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2020, Vol. 31(7) 1015 –1035
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403419838020
Do Detainees Plead Guilty
Faster? A Survival Analysis
of Pretrial Detention and the
Timing of Guilty Pleas
Nick Petersen1
Although numerous quantitative studies have linked pretrial detention to increased
conviction rates, the precise mechanisms linking these decisions remain unclear.
Qualitative studies shed light on these processes, revealing that many detainees plead
guilty quickly to escape the pains of detention, including poor confinement conditions,
strained work or family relations, and “dead time.” Moreover, these pressures to plead
are often exacerbated by uncertain detention length, time-sensitive “exploding” plea
deals, and temporal discounting. Utilizing data on felony defendants from large urban
counties between 1990 and 2004, we assess whether pretrial detention accelerates
the pace of guilty pleas. Survival analyses indicate that pretrial detainees plead guilty
2.86 times faster than released defendants do, suggesting that pretrial detention is a
powerful prosecutorial tool. Moreover, local resources affect case processing time
in ways that are consistent with the courtroom workgroup perspective. Implications
for public policies and future research are discussed.
guilty plea, pretrial detention, time-to-plea, bail, case processing time
While considerable attention has been devoted to the effects of pretrial detention on
convictions, surprisingly few studies have sought to identify the mechanisms
underlying these patterns. The limited research in this area suggests that pretrial
1University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Nick Petersen, Department of Sociology, University of Miami, Merrick Building, Room 122G, Coral
Gables, FL 33124, USA.
838020CJPXXX10.1177/0887403419838020Criminal Justice Policy ReviewPetersen
1016 Criminal Justice Policy Review 31(7)
detention induces guilty pleas in several ways, acting as a form of structural coercion
in plea bargaining negotiations (Cheng, 2012; Euvrard & Leclerc, 2017; Kellough &
Wortley, 2002). Detainees often plead guilty to escape poor confinement conditions,
keep their job, or hold their family together (Pelvin, 2017; Rabinowitz, 2010).
Temporal considerations also play a critical role in compelling detainees to plead
guilty, as many find it difficult to cope with the uncertainty of their detention length,
spending “dead time” in jail, and time-sensitive “exploding” plea deals (Euvrard &
Leclerc, 2017; Kellough & Wortley, 2002; Pelvin, 2017; Rabinowitz, 2010). Thus,
although qualitative studies indicate that detainees in specific jurisdictions plead guilty
quickly to get out of jail, we currently lack generalizable knowledge about how these
dynamics might operate across a wider range of cases and court contexts.
This gap in the literature has important implications for our understanding of pre-
trial detention, as well as criminal case processing more generally. Most quantitative
bail studies capture whether a defendant was detained or convicted, but not the timing
of these decisions. The examination of detention time is not only important in terms of
offering a more fine-grained measure of pretrial detention, but also because the amount
of time a defendant spends in jail can affect the pace of their plea. Moreover, because
the vast majority of defendants are convicted through guilty pleas (Bibas, 2004, 2012;
Lynch, 2016; McCoy, 2005, 2007), it is critical to understand the timing of guilty
pleas. For most defendants, the question is not whether they will plead guilty, but
when (Sacks & Ackerman, 2012). Based on the qualitative literature, we suspect that
pretrial detention is a key factor in explaining the timing of guilty pleas.
We attempt to fill this gap in the literature by investigating the timing of guilty pleas
for felony defendants in the 1990 to 2004 State Court Processing Statistics (SCPS)
data set. Focusing on the timing of guilty pleas allows us to better identify the mecha-
nisms linking pretrial detention and convictions, evaluating the hypothesis that detain-
ees plead guilty quicker to get out of jail. Survival analyses indicate that detainees
plead guilty faster than defendants who are released before adjudication, implying that
pretrial detention can act as a form of structural coercion by inducing guilty pleas. We
also find that the speed of guilty pleas depends on other case characteristics and social
contextual factors in ways that comport with courtroom workgroup theories and exist-
ing research on case processing time. These results have implications for jurisdictions
contemplating bail reform, demonstrating the potential costs of pretrial detention for
the fairness of guilty pleas and the importance of local resources for case processing
Literature Review
Pretrial Detention, Case Outcomes, and Processing Time
A large proportion of criminal defendants come from economically disadvantaged
backgrounds (Pelvin, 2017; Rabinowitz, 2010), and as a result, many of the 500,000
detainees held in U.S. jails each year are forced to wait in jail until adjudication simply
because they cannot afford bail (Edkins & Dervan, 2018; Stevenson, 2018). Given that

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