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Quattrone Center Research Fellow Dr. Johanna Hellgren examines how defense attorneys approach plea bargain decisions

November 16, 2021

Hellgren’s research also delves into the Alford plea, which allows defendants to maintain their innocence while accepting a plea deal.

Dr. Johanna Hellgren is a Research Fellow at the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice. She recently earned a PhD in Psychology and Law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and is a psychologist who conducts research at the intersection of law and psychology with the overarching goals of shedding light on shortcomings within the criminal justice system and examining ways to improve them.

Johanna Hellgren, Quattrone Center Research Fellow Johanna Hellgren, Quattrone Center Research FellowWith a 95% guilty plea rate in the U.S., the need to understand factors that influence decision making in a plea-bargaining context is becoming more evident. Lately, Hellgren’s research has primarily focused on how defense attorneys handle decision-making during the plea-bargaining process. 

Generally, she aims to conduct research with real-world implications and then work with policymakers or practitioners to implement change. 

“Now, as the public witnesses more examples of grave injustice every day,” said Hellgren, “it is paramount that researchers from different fields are fully dedicated to better understanding the system and ways to fix it.”

In a recent project, Hellgren examined whether defense attorneys were more focused on the pragmatics of a case (whether they can win at trial) or the actual guilt or innocence of their client when giving plea recommendations. By manipulating the evidentiary status of both inculpatory and exculpatory evidence, she found that defense attorneys were substantially more influenced by the pragmatic perspective when offering plea recommendations. In a forthcoming study, Hellgren plans to explore how the decision-making process may differ among defense attorneys who defend juvenile clients.

She is also interested in exploring the Alford plea, which allows defendants to maintain their innocence while accepting a plea deal. In her dissertation work, she found that the public has a more negative view of defendants who accept Alford pleas compared to defendants who accept traditional pleas. Hellgren’s goal is to extend this research and further explore public perception of the Alford plea and people who choose to take it.

Learn more about the Quattrone Center’s cutting-edge criminal justice research.