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We know that criminal defendants who plead guilty receive lower sentences than those convicted at trial, but there’s widespread disagreement about why. One camp of scholars believes this plea-trial differential represents a deeply troubling and coercive penalty; a second believes it’s merely a freedom-enhancing discount; and a third denies any meaningful distinction between the two at all. One reason for this disagreement is theoretical—it’s not at all clear what these concepts mean. Another is empirical—in the absence of precise conceptual definitions, we lack relevant data because scholars don’t know what to look for when searching for evidence of penalties and discounts in the real world.

This Article seeks to bring greater theoretical and empirical clarity to the debate. To that end, I propose a theoretical definition of plea discounts and trial penalties. Applying this framework to the existing literature, I argue that there is strong theoretical and anecdotal evidence of trial penalties but little systematic empirical evidence. Nearly all of the statistical research has only studied the plea-trial differential; because both discounts and penalties are equally consistent with the existence of such a differential, the literature cannot distinguish between them.

To develop a robust statistical test of the discount and penalty theories, we need to look elsewhere—where they make different predictions about prosecutorial behavior. Contrary to the views of the third camp of scholars—who maintain that’s impossible—I show that discounts and penalties are only indistinguishable if we assume litigation costs and acquittal probabilities are static. But they aren’t. They change all the time, and as a result, the discount and penalty theories diverge from each other, predicting different prosecutorial behavior. I argue that this theoretical insight might be used to develop an empirical test to help assess the prevalence and intensity of discounts and penalties in criminal court.