Vol. LIV No. 4

Anchors Away: Why the Anchoring Effect Suggests That Judges Should Be Able to Participate in Plea Discussions

The “anchoring effect” is a cognitive bias by which people evaluate numbers by focusing on a reference point—an anchor—and adjusting up or down. Unfortunately, people usually do not sufficiently adjust away from their anchors, so the initial choice of anchors has an inordinate effect on their final estimates. More than ninety percent of all criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains. In the vast majority of those cases, the prosecutor makes the initial plea offer, and prosecutors often make high initial offers. Assuming that the prosecutor’s opening offer operates as an anchor, nearly all criminal cases in this country produce unjust results based upon an unconscious cognitive bias. This Article proposes a solution that most jurisdictions have rejected: Judges should be able to participate in the plea discussions. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1) and most state counterparts strictly preclude judges from participating in plea discussions, but a few jurisdictions permit judicial participation. In these jurisdictions, plea discussions commence with the prosecution and defense laying out their cases and asking for particular dispositions and the judge responding with the expected post-plea sentence. This Article contends that this type of judicial participation would reduce the anchoring effect.

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