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When Is Justice Not Justice?: Plea Bargaining in the Courts, Essay Example

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Words: 1232

Essay

Introduction

As society has evolved and expanded, it is inevitable that the judicial system must grow more complex, in order to address the multiple challenges created.  These challenges exist in the forms of actual crime as both more occurring and varied in nature, and are further complicated by shifting cultural perceptions regarding punishment itself.  In simple terms, if there was ever an era in which it was universally accepted that certain offenses demand consistent punishment, today’s reality is very different.  Prison overcrowding, changes in punitive ideologies, and pragmatic desires to better enable the apprehension of other criminals has led to the construct of plea bargaining, in which sentences are reduced or discarded in favor of extenuating circumstances.  These circumstances are in some cases highly relevant, and the judicial system may justly enter into plea agreements which go to a greater good and simultaneously mete out justice in an ethical fashion.  Nonetheless, no such process may be excused when crimes are of severe natures, simply because justice at such levels cannot be modified without eviscerating its actual presence and purpose.  If plea bargaining is indeed a necessary evolution within justice, it is one that must be marked by parameters going to the society’s sense of what absolutely may not be ameliorated, in terms of crime.

Discussion

It is ordinary for people to think of plea bargaining as an inherent advantage for criminals.  The idea, largely promoted through film and media, is that a guilty person receives a diminished sentence, or none at all, in exchange for revealing information or for admitting to a lesser charge.  This is, to an extent, true, as there are sound reasons behind the process.  The incentive for the system in the latter cases is strong; should the authorities believe the individual guilty, there is still the uncertainty of trial, and it is often seen as more desirable that conviction through the plea admission, along with some form of punishment, is preferable to running the risk of acquittal. There is also the factor of trial expense and effort, and this is no small consideration in a system massively burdened by cases.  Regarding the exchange of information in a plea, it is not uncommon for defendants to offer to testify against another, provided their own sentencing is modified (Elliot, Ali, 2007, p. 169).  All of this supports the idea that plea bargaining serves the interests of defendants.

At the same time, plea bargaining presents many substantial threats to defendants, which in turn threaten the justice system itself.  It is noted, for example, that prosecutors will often seek a more severe penalty only in order to motivate the plea, and thus secure a guilty verdict and acceptable punishment; as in commerce, the values are shifted to accommodate aims, and this is both unethical in regard to defendants and unconscionable in terms of defining justice.  Moreover, and ironically, the same impulse on the part of the courts to better secure a conviction through bargaining may work to influence defendants, and not in any way conducive to the actual pursuit of justice.  More exactly, it is widely felt that many innocent persons will take a plea because the promise of leniency appears less forbidding than the potential of jury sentencing (Banks, 2008, p. 120).  Critics of plea bargaining cite the inescapable fact that the process is inherently a coercive mechanism.  By setting justice out in a way that may be adjusted by virtue of factors unrelated to the crime, it has an undue influence on judicial practice itself.  Critics of the practice hold that plea bargaining, in whatever form it takes, serves the actors within the justice systems, rather than the society for which that system is in place to serve (Clark, 2007,  p. 1111).  Simply, it adds layers of negotiation within what should be a process removed from negotiation.

A strong reason often offered for eliminating plea bargaining in cases of violent crime is that doing so sends a very distinct message; namely, that a felon charged with such a crime cannot hope to face anything but the full severity of the law.  This motivation was in place when, in 1997,  the District Attorney of Tennessee’s Shelby County issued such a policy.  Under the new ruling, anyone indicted for murder, robbery, or rape would either plea guilty or go to trial, and the Memphis media were charged with conveying this policy change to the public.  It was later affirmed by the District Attorney that violent crime in the area had indeed lessened.  At the same time, there was in this period a national reduction in violent crime, so the conclusion that the policy played a part is moot at best (Cole, Smith, 2009, p. 400).  Moreover, the further motivation in this case going to streamlining the judicial process by removing the element of plea negotiations is not supported by other research.  Bans on plea bargaining elsewhere have been studied and the results indicate no significant advantages in terms of court functioning (Banks, 2008,  p. 120).  There are advantages to judges, prosecutors, and other court officers, but the system moves on as it does, due to the ceaseless flow of cases.

While it is reasonable to assert that there are circumstances where a plea serves a greater good, as when a defendant both faces real punishment and assists in convictions of others, it is nonetheless essential to recognize that no negotiation may be permitted to modify the ethical constraints going to the laws in place.  This goes to severity, in that heinous crimes are perceived as demanding greater punishment, and society is less aggressive in regard to minor offenses.  This reality, in fact, should dictate how plea bargaining may be conducted; as minor crimes require less punishment, so too is it more reasonable that a plea, in which the punishment is modified to obtain other advantages, is acceptable.  Conversely, extreme crimes demand a more unalloyed approach, because the ethics of society are disregarded when horrific crimes are treated in a way adjusting degree of punishment through negotiation.  In simple terms, plea bargaining of any kind must be constrained by the same ethics that underscore the laws violated.

Conclusion

A complex society inherently adapts to deal with its own complexity, and this is certainly true of the massive structure of the criminal justice system.  Debate rages regarding plea bargaining on every level, as it is alternately viewed as an efficient means of adjudication and a reasonable avenue to expediting justice, or a process greatly undermining the system itself, as well as perverting the intents of justice in coercing defendants unduly.  What is irrefutable in all of this, however, is that plea bargaining is negotiation, and this fact must be acknowledged as rendering it inapplicable in cases where severity of crime denies any such negotiation, if the basic ethics of the society are to be observed.  Plea bargaining may be a necessary evolution within justice, but it is one that must be defined by parameters going to society’s sense of what may not be ameliorated, in terms of crime.

References

Banks, C.  (2008).  Criminal Justice Ethics: Theory and Practice.  Thousand Oaks: Sage            Publications.

Clark, D. S.  (2007).  Encyclopedia of Law & Society. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Cole, G. F., & Smith, C. E. (2009).  The American System of Criminal Justice, International      Edition.  Belmont: Cengage Learning.

Elliot, J. M., & Ali, S. R.  (2007).  The State and Local Government Political Dictionary.           Rockville: Wildside Press LLC.

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