Academic journal article Law & Society Review

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

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

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

Article excerpt

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, Alschuler (1968, 1975, 1976) dedicates a separate article to each actor's 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 observations 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 organizational 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 courtroom 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 disposition. To this end, the current study explores the extent to which courtroom actor interactions are related to guilty plea convictions. Several components of the courtroom workgroup, including 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 decreasing 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 provide 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 attorneys 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 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 (Blumberg 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 uncertainties and increasing efficiency (Thompson 1967). …

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