COVID-19 Exacerbates Existing System Factors That Disadvantage Defendants: Findings From a National Survey of Defense Attorneys

Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to provide access to this paper, however, the abstract is below and you can access the complete paper here: 

Objective: COVID-19 has impacted many facets of daily life and the legal system is no exception. Legal scholars have hypothesized that the effects of the pandemic may contribute to more coercive plea bargains (Cannon, 2020; Johnson, 2020). In this study, we explored defense attorneys’ perceptions of whether and how the plea process has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Hypotheses: This study was exploratory, and we made no a priori hypotheses. 

Method: We surveyed 93 practicing United States defense attorneys about their perceptions of whether and how the pandemic has affected court procedures, plea-bargaining and prosecutorial behavior, and defendant decision-making. We conducted semistructured follow-up interviews with 13 defense attorneys to help contextualize the survey responses. 

Results: The majority of defense attorneys (81%, n = 76) reported that the plea process had changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that they experienced difficulty contacting and communicating with their clients, especially those who were detained. Two thirds of defense attorneys (n = 42) who said the plea process had changed thought that prosecutors were offering more lenient deals. One third of defense attorneys with detained clients (n = 23) reported having had clients plead guilty due to COVID-19 related conditions who might not have under normal circumstances. 

Conclusions: The majority of defense attorneys reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their ability to access and advise clients, and they believed that leverage in plea negotiations had shifted further to individual prosecutors. At the same time, the attorneys reported that prosecutors were offering more lenient deals, painting a complex picture of the plea negotiation process during the pandemic.