RESEARCH AREAS

ADOLESCENT DECISION MAKING AND LEGAL COMPETENCIES

​Adolescence is a period of marked neurobiological and psychosocial development. Teenagers have more difficulty than adults countering dysregulating influences in stressful and time-pressured situations. As a result, they may be at increased risk for poor decision making during the pre-adjudicative and adjudicative process. 

 

We seek to identify and explain differences in the ways that adolescents and adults make decisions in legal contexts. We are particularly interested in decisions made under conditions of uncertainty (i.e., risk). Most recently our work has centered on guilty plea decision making, with specific emphasis on  factors that put innocent youth at risk for pleading guilty. The overarching goal of our work is to encourage developmentally appropriate juvenile and criminal justice policies that promote rehabilitation of young people and maximize societal benefits. 

 

NEUROPHYSIOLOGY OF ADOLESCENT DECISION MAKING

The brain undergoes substantial structural and functional change during the decade of adolescence. We maintain a small line of research investigating the neural correlates of feedback processing in adolescents and their relationship to decision making under conditions of uncertainty in adolescents and young adults.

GUILTY PLEAS

95% of all criminal convictions are a result of a guilty plea. In our lab, we are interested in understanding guilty plea decision making on the part of defendants, with a particular interest in what factors might contribute to innocent defendants pleading guilty.  Current projects examine differences in youth and adult plea decisions, the effects of potential trial sentence, plea discount and the likelihood of conviction on plea decisions and differences in the ways that innocent and guilty participants evaluate evidence against them. 

 

Modelling Plea Decisions

Dr. Zottoli is the principal investigator on an interdisciplinary project that will advance the pace of research in this area by utilizing computational modelling.  A long-term goal of this work is to generate policy recommendations that will maintain a high rate of guilty pleas among the factually guilty, while preserving defendant autonomy and minimizing the risk that innocent defendants will plead guilty. The project is funded by the American Psychology and Law Society's Research to Enhance the Diversification of Psychology and Law program, and is in collaboration with Drs. Rebecca Helm (Exeter University), Michael Bixter, PhD (MSU), Vanessa Edkins and Michael King (Florida Institute of Technology).

 

(LINK to Guilty Plea Project Coming Soon!)

PROSECUTORIAL DECISION MAKING

Prosecutors exert strong influence on sentencing outcomes by virtue of their power to bring charges and negotiate pleas. This line of research aims to understand how prosecutors make decisions, how decision making is affected by differences in office policy and culture across prosecutor offices, and how office policies and culture impact sentencing outcomes, incarceration rates and community safety. 

 

Juvenile Lifer Resentencing in Philadelphia

In its 2016 decision, Montgomery v. Louisiana, SCOTUS made retroactive its previous ruling in Miller v. Alabama (2012) that mandatory life-without-parole  is unconstitutional for persons convicted of crimes they committed before the age of 18.  When District Attorney Larry Krasner was elected in 2018, Philadelphia's juvenile-lifer resentencing process was already underway.  This change in administrations, during a crucial resentencing project, provided us with a unique opportunity to examine the impact of differences in administrative priorities and policies on case outcomes.  You can read our brief on Philadelphia's resentencing process and outcomes related to cost-savings and recidivism here.. 

Dr. Daftary-Kapur is the principal investigator on a project that will extend this work by identifying challenges to community re-entry  for released juvenile lifers, the resources that aid successful re-integration, and the additional resources that might be beneficial. This study is funded by the Vital Projects fund. Dr. Zottoli is co-investigator. 

©2018 T.M. Zottoli