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​Adolescence is a developmental stage that is distinct from adulthood and characterized by substantial neurobiological and psychosocial change. We seek to understand the implications of developmental changes in decision making across adolescence for justice involved youth. 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. 


The vast majority of 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).

 Have you ever been charged with a crime? Watch this space for a survey coming soon. 

Sentencing, Release & Reentry

Our lab is committed to facilitating the work of prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and policy makers who seek to improve justice system outcomes and implement empirically supported policy. Current projects include developing a tool to help defense attorneys identify and remediate deficits in the guilty plea knowledge of youth, and understanding the implications of prosecutorial decision-making and office policies on incarceration rates, community safety, and prisoner re-entry.  

Juvenile Lifer Resentencing and Reentry

In 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States abolished mandatory life-without parole sentences for persons whose crimes were committed before age 18. Recently, we examined the decision making approach to juvenile-lifer resentencing taken by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office and reported on cost-savings and recidivism for the jurisdiction. Dr. Daftary-Kapur is the principal investigator on a related project, supported by Vital Projects fund, documenting the re-entry experiences of released juvenile lifers. A primary objective of this work is to understand the challenges faced by this population and to identify resources that facilitate successful community reintegration. Dr. Zottoli is co-investigator. 


You can find our juvenile-lifer project page here. 


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