The Adverse Effects of Trial Duration on the Use of Plea Bargaining and Penal Orders in Italy

Gabriele Paolini (University of Hamburg)


The average duration of first-instance criminal trials has steadily increased in Italy over the last twenty years. Over the same period, the use of trial-avoiding procedures has decreased, contrasting the predictions of the economic models of plea bargaining. The phenomenon can be explained by the unique regulation of the Italian statute of limitations: if trials last longer than a certain time threshold, defendants must be acquitted. Hence, longer trials reduce defendants’ incentives towards plea bargaining and penal orders. In an instrumental variable analysis on a panel of 140 first-instance judicial districts over the period 2005-2021 I find that longer first-instance trials decrease the use of both plea bargaining and penal orders in Italy. The results of the analysis call for a reform of the Italian statute of limitations, considering its perverse effect on defendants’ incentives.

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