Efficiency Over Accuracy?: Exploring Front-Line Practitioners’ Experiences and Opinions on the “Guilty Plea System”

Published date01 June 2024
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/09646639231197778
AuthorCaitlin Nash,Rachel Dioso-Villa,Louise Porter
Date01 June 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Eff‌iciency Over Accuracy?:
Exploring Front-Line
PractitionersExperiences
and Opinions on the Guilty
Plea System
Caitlin Nash
Griff‌ith Criminology Institute, Griff‌ith University,
Mount Gravatt, QLD, Australia
Rachel Dioso-Villa
Griff‌ith Criminology Institute, Griff‌ith University,
Mount Gravatt, QLD, Australia
Louise Porter
Griff‌ith Criminology Institute, Griff‌ith University,
Mount Gravatt, QLD, Australia
Abstract
While most criminal cases are resolved by a guilty plea, little empirical research has
examined guilty plea wrongful convictions. This study explored this issue through semi-
structured interviews with 27 legal professionals in Queensland, Australia (n=16
defense lawyers; n=7 prosecutors; n=4 magistrates). Driven by a systems and organ-
izational perspective, we conducted a thematic analysis exploring the structural and
organizational features that may systematically contribute to erroneous guilty plea con-
victions. We found an overarching emphasis on eff‌iciency and pressure to quickly
resolve cases, coupled with practical constraints impeding legal professionals from
ensuring guilty pleas are appropriate and accurate . There was also a general acceptance
Corresponding author:
Caitlin Nash, Griff‌ith Criminology Institute, Griff‌ith University, 176 Messines Ridge Road, Mount Gravatt,
QLD 4122, Australia.
Email: c.nash@griff‌ith.edu.au
Article
Social & Legal Studies
2024, Vol. 33(3) 420442
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/09646639231197778
journals.sagepub.com/home/sls
of false guilty pleas through the justif‌ication of choice,legitimized by the authoritative
precedent set by Meissner v R (1995). The f‌indings indicate the routine nature of erro-
neous guilty plea convictions and raise important implications regarding the current val-
idity of a guilty plea, as they do not always ref‌lect actual guilt.
Keywords
False guilty pleas, wrongful convictions, pleas of convenience, pressure, organization
Introduction
Most of our knowledge of wrongful convictions is based upon known exonerations that
typically involve serious violent offenses carrying lengthy prison sentences (Gross, 2017;
Hamer, 2022; Zalman and Norris, 2021). However, such cases represent only a small pro-
portion of offenses prosecuted in adversarial criminal justice systems. Instead, the vast
majority of criminal cases are resolved by the defendant pleading guilty, with increasing
recognition that innocent persons are pleading guilty to lesser sentences to avoid the costs
and time associated with a trial (Blume and Helm, 2014; Erentzen et al., 2021; Roach,
2021; Sherrin, 2011; Webster, 2022). Given the prevalence of guilty pleas within the
system, wrongful convictions resulting from a guilty plea are likely much higher than
those resulting from a trial. Furthermore, it has become increasingly acknowledged
that structural features of the criminal justice system likely play a role in the occurrence
of false guilty pleas (see Roach, 2021; Webster, 2022). As stated by Hamer (2022: 15),
false guilty pleas are likely symptomatic of broader system issues.Indeed, rather than
being viewed as a rare event or accident, Roach (2021) argues how guilty plea wrongful
convictions should be examined as the predictable costs of operating in a high-volume
criminal justice system that places a premium on eff‌iciency.
Although exoneration data in the United States (National Registry of Exonerations,
2023), Canada (Roach, 2023), and the United Kingdom (Evidence-Based Justice Lab,
2023) have documented wrongful convictions stemming from a guilty plea, empirical
research on this issue remains limited. In a previous study conducted by the authors,
we analyzed 139 Australian appellate court judgments where a guilty plea conviction
was overturned to investigate the factors contributing to guilty plea wrongful convictions
(Nash et al., 2021). Although this study represented an important f‌irst step in understand-
ing the occurrence of erroneous guilty plea convictions throughout the criminal justice
process, it had two key limitations. First, relying on cases where a guilty plea conviction
was overturned does not represent the true extent of the problem. Defendants who plead
guilty face numerous legal and practical barriers that make reviewing and overturning
their convictions notoriously diff‌icult, and many erroneous guilty plea convictions
likely go unrecognized or uncorrected (Alschuler, 2016; Zalman and Norris, 2021).
Second, the study only revealed the immediateor legalcauses of guilty plea wrong-
ful convictions and did not capture the systemic or rootcauses that may contribute to
these errors being made in the f‌irst place (Leo, 2017: 94). To gain a more comprehensive
understanding of the issue, it is crucial to examine both the immediate and underlying
factors that contribute to erroneous guilty plea convictions.
Nash et al. 421

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