374 Legal Understanding & Adolescents

Research by Zottoli, Tina. M., & Daftary-Kapur, Tarika. (2019).

Written by Shannon Cantalupo, B.S. 

As an adult, do you understand what a guilty plea means? Would adolescents understand legal consequences of their plea decisions?

Psychology and Justice Department colleagues assessed differences between youth and adults in understanding the plea process, factors that youth or adults considered when making their decisions, plus their belief that they were innocent or guilty.

A total of 64 adolescents and 56 adults who pled guilty to felonies in New York City participated in this study. All completed an interview to assess their understanding of pleas, their case, factors considered in their plea decision and their actual innocence or guilt. Providing three cases of defendants making plea decisions of: guilty as charged, charged with more serious crime, and innocent, they asked the participants to pick which plea resembled their own case.

Results? Adolescents were less likely to understand that guilty pleas resulted in a criminal record, or the rights they waived. They considered fewer potential outcomes in their decision. Both adults and youth reported pleading guilty to reduce their sentences.

Our youth lack legal understanding of plea decision making. How can we help our youth understand the legal system and make better decisions?


Zottoli, T. M., & Daftary-Kapur, T. (2019). Guilty pleas of youths and adults: Differences in legal knowledge and decision making. Law and Human Behavior, 43(2), 166 – 179.

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