First Advisor

Don C. Gibbons

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Urban Studies


Urban Studies and Planning




Plea bargaining, Administration of Criminal justice



Physical Description

3, xiii, 311 leaves 28 cm.


Recent research has led to a growing awareness that the dominant method of settling criminal cases in the United States involves disposition without trial. The overwhelming majority of criminal cases are settled by guilty pleas, and the majority of guilty plea dispositions involve some kind of bargain on the charge or sentence. The purpose of the present study was to examine and analyze the phenomenon of negotiating the guilty plea in terms of its relationship to the functional needs and ideal goals of the court system. A basic assumption of this study was that case disposition through a bargaining process provides for both functional needs and ideal goals which are not clearly provided for in the trial system. A detailed examination of felony case disposition without trial in one Pacific Northwest urban court system was undertaken to ascertain the precise nature of the bargaining process. Records regarding the nature and outcomes of felony dispositions in 1976 and 1977 were researched, along with information on the formal structure, procedures and pOlicies of the court organization. Interviews with prosecutors, public defenders and judges in the felony court system provided attitudinal data. Observations of guilty plea hearings and negotiation conferences allowed the researcher to record actual activities in the disposition process. The data indicated that the majority of cases were settled by guilty pleas and that the majority of guilty pleas involved some kind of bargain. Plea negotiation in this court system was routinized, formalized and highly structured. The bargaining process was prosecutor-dominated, in part due to the District Attorney Office policy which was noticeably inflexible in terms of bargaining criteria. The one commodity of power held by the defense attorney was strength of case. If the defense could find legal "loopholes" in the state's case, the chances of the defendant getting a good deal improved. This emphasis on legal factors appeared to strengthen the professional orientation as well as the adversary perspective of the opposing attorneys. Pleading guilty to a reduced charge resulted in the greatest likelihood of a defendant receiving a non-incarceration sentence. The majority of reductions were to offenses necessarily included in the initial charge. Conviction by trial resulted in the highest, proportion of incarceration sentences of all closing types. However, there was evidence that circumstances of the case and the defendant were influential regarding the likelihood of incarceration at the sentencing stage. A balancing factor aFpeared to be at work according to comparisons of the 1976 and 1977 data. Changes in the District Attorney Office policy instituted in 1977 expanded the list of non-reducible offenses. While the proportion of trial closings consequently increased for these non-reducible offenses, this increase was offset by a decrease in the proportion of trials for offenses not included in the non-reducible category. Generally, the findings supported the theoretical assumption that disposition by guilty plea negotiation could fulfill functional needs of the court system within a legalistic framework.


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Portland State University. School of Urban Affairs.

Persistent Identifier