UMass Lowell Researcher Wins NSF Grant to Find Answers
LOWELL, Mass. – If you’re accused of a crime, it is unlikely you’ll ever get your day in court, according to a UMass Lowell legal researcher.
That’s because people are far more likely to plead guilty, often in exchange for a reduced sentence, rather than risk a guilty verdict at trial that would come with a more severe punishment, says UMass Lowell Prof. Miko Wilford, who studies how and why people plead guilty – even when they are innocent.
More than 95 percent of all U.S. criminal charges are resolved by guilty pleas, not through trials, according to Wilford, whose work focuses on the human dynamics behind legal proceedings, including the reliability of eyewitnesses and the effectiveness of interview techniques used by law enforcement.
A new, five-year $498,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER grant will allow Wilford, an assistant psychology professor from Dracut, to study why defendants opt for plea deals. The prestigious grant program recognizes outstanding faculty researchers who are making significant contributions as scholars and mentors early in their careers.
The award will help fund further development of a computer simulation she created with UMass Lowell students and Art and Design Prof. Misha Rabinovich to explore these issues. Using the simulation, Wilford examines how plea-bargain proceedings affect outcomes, which she said vary widely between states and even jurisdictions within the same state. Her goal is to reduce false guilty pleas and to improve how the justice system serves criminal defendants.
“In many jurisdictions, there are no clear procedural guidelines, so prosecutors can approach defendants directly with plea offers before they even have been given a chance to ask for an attorney,” Wilford said. “When prosecutors offer really dramatic plea discounts, like five years in jail compared to 25 years, then, innocent or guilty, you’re likely to seriously consider it. That kind of sentencing should not be allowed because then plea bargains essentially punish innocent people for exercising their constitutional right to a trial.”
The simulation is built on an open-source platform so that other researchers can adapt it to their work. The program draws on Rabinovich’s use of animation, video and other media to create interactive scenarios. In one of these, participants play the role of a driver who is charged with hitting a parked car and then leaving the scene of the accident. Some participants then see a “flashback” scene in which they “remember” hitting the car, while others see a flashback that indicates they are innocent.
Next, the simulation’s prosecutor offers role players a deal: probation and a fine for a guilty plea, compared to jail time and higher costs if they reject the offer and are found guilty at trial. After making their choice, participants are asked to explain the reasons behind their decision.
The simulation is allowing Wilford to test the variables that can change the likelihood of a guilty plea, including the defendant’s age and the difference between the plea offer and the penalty for a conviction at trial. She plans to administer the exercise to groups including college students and other adults.
Along with Rabinovich, Wilford’s research team includes UMass Lowell Professors Joseph Gonzales of Psychology and Jill Lohmeier of the College of Education. UMass Lowell students contributing to the project are Matthew LeBlanc, a computer science major from Milford; Cassidy McAuliffe, an art major from Lawrence; and Kelly Sutherland, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology from Lowell. Recent graduates who also worked on the project include Dracut residents Annmarie Khairalla, who earned a degree in psychology; Jordanne Love, who majored in art; and Thomas Nelson, whose degree is in computer science.
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