The Role of Courtroom Workgroups in Felony Case Dispositions: An Analysis of Workgroup Familiarity and Similarity

Date01 September 2016
Published date01 September 2016
The Role of Courtroom Workgroups in Felony Case
Dispositions: An Analysis of Workgroup Familiarity
and Similarity
Christi Metcalfe
While pleading guilty has become ubiquitous in criminal trial courts, limited
research has focused on the plea process and the factors that influence guilty
plea convictions. Numerous theoretical accounts of the plea process highlight
the importance of the court actors and their interactions. Based on this
research, the current study analyzes the impact of courtroom actor familiarity
and similarity on the chosen mode of disposition and the time to disposition.
The findings demonstrate that similarity among the actors and familiarity
between the prosecutor and judge increase the odds of a plea disposition and
reduce the days to disposition. However, familiarity of the defense attorney
seems to impede on the informal plea process, such that cases are more likely
to proceed to trial when the defense attorney is more familiar with the other
According to the latest statistics for felony sentences in state
courts, 94 percent of felony convictions are resolved by a guilty
plea (Durose et al. 2009). With so few felony cases proceeding to
trial, it can be argued that we do not have an adversarial system
of justice, as is often assumed. Although pleading guilty has
become ubiquitous, scholars have recognized that there is limited
research about the process that leads to guilty pleas, especially in
comparison to the amount of research devoted to sentencing
(Baumer 2013; Bushway and Forst 2013; Johnson et al. 2014;
Ulmer 2012).
Numerous law review articles have offered insights into the
non-adversarial nature of the criminal court system, and in
almost every account of the plea process, the importance of the
actors and their interactions is emphasized. For instance, Alschu-
ler (1968, 1975, 1976) dedicates a separate article to each actor’s
I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers, my dissertation committee, Dr.
Thomas Baker, and Dr. Justin Pickett for their comments and feedback on earlier versions
of this manuscript. I would also like to thank the Public Defender’s Office for their help
and support.
Please direct all correspondence to Christi Metcalfe, University of South Carolina,
Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Currell College, 1305 Greene Street,
Columbia, SC 29208; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 50, Number 3 (2016)
C2016 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
role in plea bargaining. Bibas (2004), in speculating about the
“shadow of a trial” argument for plea bargaining, notes the
importance of the actors in the chosen mode of disposition and
their incentives to plea. These reviews dovetail with the observa-
tions of Blumberg (1967) and Skolnick (1967) regarding the
cooperative relations among courtroom actors, and the later
work by Eisenstein, Jacob, Flemming, and Nardulli concerning
courtroom workgroups (Eisenstein and Jacob 1977; Eisenstein
et al. 1988; Flemming et al. 1992; Nardulli et al. 1988). Together,
this research makes several propositions regarding the organiza-
tional structure of criminal trial courts and the actors within
them that can potentially explain the predominance of guilty
pleas in the criminal court system.
Despite this fairly large body of research connecting court-
room workgroups to informal case processing methods, there are
few quantitative assessments of courtroom workgroup interaction
and none of these assessments predict the chosen mode of dispo-
sition. To this end, the current study explores the extent to which
courtroom actor interactions are related to guilty plea convic-
tions. Several components of the courtroom workgroup, includ-
ing the familiarity and similarity between the actors, are focused
on in an effort to capture the level of interaction between the
actors in a given case. It is proposed that increased familiarity
and similarity between the actors should facilitate cooperation by
increasing the likelihood of a guilty plea disposition and decreas-
ing the time to disposition. This study is the first to develop a
measure of familiarity, or repeat interaction, in the context of
criminal trial cases and is unique in the sense that all three actors
are known for each case in the dataset.
The Criminal Court Organization and Its Actors
From an outsider’s perspective, criminal trial courts possess a
culture that thrives on the constitutional values of due process,
justice, and fairness. In accordance with these values, the actors
within the criminal court system seek to attain certain ideological
goals respective to their positions. For example, judges attempt
to be fair and impartial decision makers, prosecutors strive to
keep criminals off the streets, and defense attorneys try to pro-
vide the best defense for their clients while safeguarding the
rights to which their clients are entitled. Considering their unique
roles and goals, it is expected that the interactions between attor-
neys would be adversarial, with judges as mediators between the
two. However, Blumberg (1967) and Skolnick (1967), in their
seminal articles, recognized the strong tendency toward
638 Courtroom Workgroups in Felony Case Dispositions
cooperation among the actors in the criminal court system, and
as Blumberg (1967: 19) stated, the inclination to abandon their
“ideological and professional commitments” to service the
“higher claims of the court organization.”
These “higher claims” are the bureaucratic priorities and
administrative concerns of the court as an organization (Blum-
berg 1967). Criminal courts, and all organizations for that matter,
are troubled by uncertainties and inefficiencies in the workplace,
and work toward the organizational goals of reducing uncertain-
ties and increasing efficiency (Thompson 1967). As Albonetti
(1986) recognizes, there is little control over the criminalization
process in the court system, particularly when a case proceeds to
trial. In a trial, the verdict is left to an unpredictable jury. Also,
trials require substantial investments of time and effort that
impede on the efficiency of case processing (Eisenstein and Jacob
1977). The desire to reduce uncertainty, especially among prose-
cutors and judges, and efficiently process cases leads to the devel-
opment of norms and routines in case processing (Albonetti
1986, 1991; Eisenstein and Jacob 1977). One of these norms is
resolving cases by pleas of guilt (Albonetti 1999; Blumberg 1967;
Cole 1970; Skolnick 1967; Packer 1968).
The actors in the system also have their own incentives to
resolve a large number of their cases through the plea process.
Prosecutors want to reduce their workloads, ensure convictions,
and maintain their public image (Bibas 2004; Hessick, III and
Saujani 2002). As Albonetti (1999) recognizes, pleading guilty
works in the benefit of the government because it offers a way to
convict without the uncertainty of a trial. Similar to prosecutors,
public defenders are burdened by large caseloads. They often
feel pressure from prosecutors and judges to moves cases quickly
to resolution and can fear judicial reprisals against clients for tak-
ing cases to trial (Alschuler 1975; Bibas 2004; Hessick, III and
Saujani 2002). Privately retained counsel has the added financial
incentive as well. Finally, judges are concerned about maintaining
their reputation (especially if they are elected), reducing their
caseload, and minimizing the number of cases that can get over-
turned on appeal (Alschuler 1976; Hessick, III and Saujani
2002). Together, the pressures of the organizational goals and the
incentive structures induce cooperation among the actors that is
expected to lead to informal methods of case processing (Bibas
2004; Blumberg 1967; Feeley 1973; Skolnick 1967).
It is argued by some that the reliance on plea negotiations—
while beneficial to the court organization, and at times, to the
defendant—can create disadvantages in sentencing among those
defendants who proceed to trial. There has been some evidence
to suggest that defendants are penalized for going to trial by
Metcalfe 639

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