Innocence in the shadow of COVID-19: Plea decision making during a pandemic.


Over 95% of criminal convictions in the United States are the result of guilty pleas. Consequently, it is critical that we ensure the process of pleading guilty is as free of coercion as possible. Yet, research has indicated that incarcerating defendants to await trial could have an undue influence on their decision to plead guilty. The current research employed a novel computer simulation to examine the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on plea decision making among the innocent and the guilty when faced with potential pretrial detention. While presenting COVID-related information to participants increased both true and false guilty pleas, further analyses indicated that concerns about COVID-19 weighed more heavily on the innocent than the guilty. These findings illustrate the negative impact a pandemic could have in combination with a system of pleas that often allows prosecutors to provide defendants with just one guaranteed respite from jail—a guilty plea. The majority of U.S. jail inmates have not been convicted of crimes, but are instead detained to await their day in court. Detained defendants are particularly likely to accept plea offers to secure immediate release from incarceration. In our study, we found that the added risk of COVID exposure in jail made participant-defendants more likely to plead guilty to avoid pretrial detention, whether they were actually guilty or not. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved)



Document Type





adjudication, computer simulation, COVID-19, false guilty pleas, plea-bargaining

Publication Date


Journal Title

Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied