The current study examined potential variations in judicial plea colloquies by systematically observing plea hearings (n = 593) in a suburban circuit court.
Since the majority of criminal cases end in guilty pleas, there is growing research on issues related to the plea process, including ways in which the court determines the validity of guilty pleas. Ideally, plea validity evaluations would be consistent across courts and jurisdictions; however, prior research on felony plea hearings suggests that key elements of plea validity may not always be present, indicating there is variation in how courts assess plea validity. In the current study, Information on the length of the hearing and the types of questions asked during the judicial colloquies was compared for the 520 (87.7 percent) defendants who pled to felony charges compared with the 73 (12.3 percent) defendants who pled down to misdemeanor-only charges. Results show plea hearings for misdemeanor-only defendants were significantly shorter and, as a result, included significantly fewer questions compared to felony defendants. This indicates that misdemeanor-only plea cases may be rushed through the court process and that these defendants may not be provided the same information about the consequences of their pleas as felony defendants, posing a threat to the validity of these pleas. (publisher abstract modified)