Prof. Dervan and Fair Trials Launch Plea Bargaining Institute

Criminal justice watchdog Fair Trials has partnered with Belmont University College of Law Professor Lucian E. Dervan to launch the Plea Bargaining Institute (PBI). Launched today, PBI is a groundbreaking project that will provide a global intellectual home for academics, policymakers, advocacy organizations and practitioners working in the plea bargaining space. PBI will create an environment for the sharing of knowledge and research and for collaboration related to the reform of global plea bargaining practices. 

In the US, 95% or more of criminal cases are resolved through a plea of guilty. When someone pleads guilty they waive their right to a trial, something guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. While a plea bargain may offer advantages, such as a more lenient sentence, plea bargaining often involves coercive incentives that negatively impacts all defendants’ right to trial. Research indicates that these incentives can be so coercive that even innocent defendants plead guilty. For example, 21% of the cases entered into the National Registry of Exonerations in 2021 involved false pleas of guilty. These pressures to plead guilty may include pressure from police and prosecutors, the imposition of much higher sentences for those who exercise their right to proceed to trial, and other systemic problems including lack of access to a lawyer, long pre-trial detention periods and high court costs. Today, coercive plea bargaining is not limited to the United States as countries around the world adopt this system of adjudication. 

PBI will create opportunities for dialogue that will inspire new and innovative research and analysis, empowering those working to reform plea bargaining to more effectively shape laws, change policy, and transform practice in the United States and internationally. PBI will also work to limit the use of coercive plea bargaining and reform the practice as a whole by engaging in training to instigate sustained alternatives.

“I am honored to be partnering with Fair Trials and excited for the launch of the Plea Bargaining Institute,” said Professor Dervan. “There is a vital need for an institute that makes important research findings and case developments widely available to those working to reform plea bargaining practices. Simultaneously, there needs to be an organization that creates opportunities for dialogue and collaboration between academics, practitioners and advocacy organizations to assist in identifying new areas for research and inquiry in this field. Today, we launch an institute that will meet these needs and help propel current and future plea bargaining reform efforts.”

Professor Dervan continued, “For decades, the plea bargaining system operated in the shadows – not well understood, not well regulated and not regularly subjected to robust challenge through litigation. Fortunately, that has begun to change over the last decade with growing research and advocacy. As research endeavors and reform efforts grow there is a vital need for an entity that can create cohesion and communication between the various groups. PBI will provide a global intellectual home for researchers, practitioners, and policy advocates to share knowledge and promote collaboration.” 

Rebecca Shaeffer, Legal Director for Fair Trials Americas, said: “Plea Bargaining has come to all but replace criminal trials in the USA, but there is still insufficient knowledge about its impacts on the justice system and the people subject to it. The Plea Bargaining Institute will advance research in this field and provide an empirical and legal basis for the reforms we know the system needs.”

PBI will focus on the following initiatives as it begins to create a global intellectual home for plea bargaining research:

  • Summaries of research and case law developments provided in a searchable online format and in annual reports to make these materials more accessible for use by academics across various fields, policymakers, advocacy organizations and practitioners.
  • Working groups for academics, policymakers, advocacy organizations and practitioners to share knowledge and create opportunities for dialogue and collaboration.
  • An annual symposium at Belmont University College of Law in Nashville, Tennessee to establish which new areas of research are necessary to bring attention to and reform the plea bargaining system both in the US and around the world.

As PBI grows, the project will expand its reach, including providing education and outreach. 

To find out more about the PBI and sign up for updates visit:  

Please be aware that this website is under development, the full site will launch in early 2023.

The PBI Board of Advisors includes:

Rebecca Brown, Director of Policy, Innocence Project

Cynthia Jones, Professor of Law, Washington College of Law, American University

Abbe David Lowell, Defense Lawyer, Winston & Strawn

Allison Redlich, University Professor, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University

Jenny Roberts, Professor of Law, Washington College of Law, American University

Rodney Roberts, Activist and Exoneree

Cynthia Roseberry, Acting Director, ACLU Justice Division, ACLU

Martin Sabelli, Defense Lawyer and Immediate Past President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Law Offices of Martin A. Sabelli

Abbe Smith, Director, Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic, Georgetown University Law Center

You can find the entire press release on the Fair Trials website here.


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