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Analysis of the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Revises the History of the Criminal Trial

This week, the New York Times had an interesting article about a digital archive of the Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

The archive is a fully searchable collection of criminal trials held at London's central criminal court including biographical details of the men and women executed at Tyburn. Contains all surviving editions of the Old Bailey Proceedings from 1674 to 1913 and of the Ordinary of Newgate's Accounts between 1676 and 1772.

According to the article, an analysis of the collection led two historians to a novel discovery:

Beginning in 1825 they noticed an unusual jump in the number of guilty pleas and the number of very short trials. Before then most of the accused proclaimed their innocence and received full trials. By 1850, however, one-third of all cases involved guilty pleas. Trials, with their uncertain outcomes, were gradually crowded out by a system in which defendants pleaded guilty outside of the courtroom, they said.

Conventional histories cite the mid-1700s as the turning point in the development of the modern adversarial system of justice in England and Colonial America... [but] "mapping all trials suggests that the real moment of evolution was in the first half of the 19th century," with the advent of plea bargains that resulted in many more convictions, Mr. Hitchcock said. "The defendant's experience of the criminal justice system changed radically. You were much more likely to be found guilty."

Last month the scholars submitted an article to the British journal Past and Present on their findings.

Hat tip to the Hon. Daniel Anderson for alerting me to the NYT article.