Surveying youth plea-bargaining knowledge: Kapur and Lawrence dive in

By Kenna Caprio

This article is one in a series delving into faculty/student research across a variety of disciplines at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Metropolitan Campus and College at Florham.

Ninety-seven percent of federal cases are plea-bargained out. But how many youth defendants understand the criminal justice system or the meaning of a plea bargain? wondered Tarika Daftary-Kapur, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the Metropolitan Campus.

“We’re looking at understanding the short- and long-term consequences of plea decision-making,” says Kapur. “Do juveniles really not understand what’s going on, and if they don’t, what can we do about it? We’re also looking to see if people are getting effective legal counsel.”

In collaboration with colleague, Tina Zottoli at St. Joseph’s College in New York, and armed with student researchers, Kapur collected data from juveniles in Brooklyn, New York.

“We’re developing a baseline understanding of what young people know about the criminal justice system,” says Kapur (photographed at right). The data she and her student researchers collect from 50 youths will allow them to establish an attorney checklist, in an effort to help both lawyers and juveniles during plea-bargaining. 

These attorneys, often public defenders, are generally “extremely overburdened,” Kapur says. “With a quick checklist, they can get a better sense, and parents too, of how to proceed.”

Recruited through community programs, these youths are usually between the ages of 14-16. Interviewers presented participants with two stories and then asked the respondents a series of questions, based on the stories, and designed to determine their level of plea-bargain knowledge. “We asked their opinion: would they take the plea deal or not?” says Frances Lawrence, a 21-year-old senior from Camden studying criminal justice. Finally, interviewers asked about the youths’ experience with their lawyers. Sample questions include, “When was the last time you talked to your lawyer? How many times did you come in contact? When was the first time you and your lawyer sat down and talked about your case? Did your lawyer inform you about the plea bargaining process?”

Though this research is still in the data collection stage, Kapur has reviewed the completed interviews and did draw some preliminary conclusions. “Respondents are very short-term oriented. They think if they don’t take the plea that they’ll go back to jail. They don’t have the sense that they have the right to go to trial. It’s not something on their radar to ask or advocate for.”

Lawrence was struck by short-term perspective of the interview subjects too. “A lot said they would’ve taken the deal because they didn’t want to be a snitch. There are juveniles who are signing their lives away, as far as jobs and education, the very things that people need to get ahead in life,” says Lawrence. “They don’t realize those things will be hard with a criminal record.”

Originally a political science major, Lawrence switched over to criminal justice because “something just clicked and I wanted to work with youth.”

When Kapur approached her about participating in the research, Lawrence leapt at the chance to get out into the field.

“I was ecstatic because a professor asked me to work on something she’s passionate about,” says Lawrence. “When you work alongside faculty members like Professor Kapur, who are passionate about their jobs, that helps students learn and grow so much better.” 

“It’s the classroom experience plus some,” Lawrence says of faculty/student research. “You have to get out into the field.”

Following her initial work with Kapur, Lawrence is sure: “I definitely want to work with juveniles and run one of these types of programs mandated by the courts,” she says. “After seeing it firsthand, I have so many ideas — including opening a group home.”

“Frances loved it at the youth program. She could make this a career,” adds Kapur.

From a practical standpoint, faculty/student research allows professors to recruit extra hands to work on their projects. From an intellectual standpoint, faculty/student research introduces students to another side of academia.

“Research is great exposure for students. They get a sense of what the criminal justice field is outside of the classroom,” says Kapur. “I encourage all faculty to work with students. Classroom instruction is very valuable, but students need contact with the research aspect of academia, too. Sometimes students don’t realize that there’s more to an academic institution than what’s inside the classroom.”

This fall, Kapur plans to continue the interviews with Lawrence and another student, Sibongile Charles.

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

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