By Katharine Webster
If you’re arrested, chances are good that you’ll never get your day in court.
That’s because more than 95 percent of all criminal charges are resolved by guilty pleas, not trials, says Asst. Prof. of PsychologyMiko Wilford. And in too many cases, innocent people are pleading guilty to avoid incarceration or draconian sentences, she says.
“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,” says Wilford, who specializes in legal psychology. “That kind of sentencing discount should not be allowed, because then plea bargains essentially punish innocent people for exercising their constitutional right to a trial.”
Yet most legal psychology research into how people are convicted focuses on jury trials, not plea offers. So Wilford and Asst. Prof. of Art and DesignMisha Rabinovich have teamed up with students to develop an open-source, animated computer simulation that will make it easier for researchers to study plea bargain proceedings, which vary widely among states and jurisdictions. In the process, they hope to find ways to reduce false guilty pleas.
“In many jurisdictions, there are no clear procedural guidelines, so prosecutors can approach defendants directly with plea offers before the defendants have even been given a chance to ask for an attorney or a public defender,” Wilford says.
Rabinovich, who has experience working in software startups, uses computers, video and other media to create immersive, interactive art.
“Most of my work is collaborative. I’m an artist, but I’m also interested in social justice,” he says. “Our goal is to inform plea policy to keep innocent people out of jail.”
Rabinovich oversaw Jordanne Love ’18, an art major with a concentration in animation and interactive media, and computer science major Thomas Nelson ’18 as they built the simulation, which combines animation with the social science data-gathering software Qualtrics.
In the demo version of the simulation at PleaJustice.org, research participants “play” as a female 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.
Then they’re offered a deal by the prosecutor: probation and a fine for a guilty plea, compared to jail time and higher costs if they reject the plea offer and they’re found guilty at trial. After choosing one or the other, they’re asked to explain the reasons for their choice.
In the next version of the simulation, participants will be asked to create an avatar who resembles them, because research has shown that the process increases engagement. Wilford and Rabinovich will also add a new crime scenario involving shoplifting, with help from animation major and computer science minor Kathrine Lucas, who will pick up where Love and Nelson leave off in July.
The project is supported by a pair of internal seed funding grants totaling almost $20,000, plus additional funding from the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Now that Wilford has validated the simulation by showing that it yields results similar to live, in-person research, she plans to apply for a National Science Foundation grant to add more options and features.
She and Rabinovich also hope to create an educational add-on, in collaboration with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lowell, to teach young people about the plea process and their rights.
Nelson built it all on a robust, open-source platform so other researchers can adapt it.
Some students in Wilford’s lab are already doing just that. For her honors thesis research, psychology major Annmarie Khairalla ’18 tested long and short, simple and complex tender-of-plea forms – which explain the defendant’s rights and the consequences of pleading guilty – to see how they affect people’s decisions on whether to plead. Khairalla also helped add a defense attorney to the simulation under a grant from the Honors College.
Khairalla says that designing and carrying out her own research from start to finish and working with Wilford, Rabinovich, Love and Nelson was an invaluable experience that helped prepare her for graduate school. She will begin pursuing a Ph.D. in forensic psychology at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in the fall.
“I learned how to make sure all my questions were clear and unbiased and how to communicate research process and design in a way that other people could understand,” she says. “And I learned how much people in other disciplines can contribute.”