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The fundamental concept of leadership, an essential component of societal nature, can be applied within every career field, however decision based leadership in courtrooms across America is becoming a controversial and pressing issue. The judicial branch of the United States government has long been a bureaucratic entity largely controlled by political and business interests, however promotion of justice was always intended to be the superseding interest in order to provide powerful civil rights to all criminally accused individuals. However as time and financial resources grow scarcer, the plea bargaining process becomes more common and more powerful over the democratic ideals that once presided; in fact a current estimate from the American Bar Association suggests that over 75% of felony charges end with a guilty plea disposition rather than a fair trial.
Plea bargaining helps clear congested court dockets throughout the nation, an issue that in most large cities is worsening at an exponential rate, by allowing judges to close a larger amount of cases, each at a faster rate.
However this efficient shortcut around justice is implemented at the expense the lives of potentially innocent accused individuals; giving them a weighty criminal record that will prevent them from future employment, and ultimately providing themselves and their families with sufficient income and opportunities. The implementation of plea bargains may be necessary to the functionality of the modern day courtroom; however it feeds the cycle of poverty, promotes courtroom intimidation, and ultimately obstructs the principle of justice that is supposed to be the prime interest of the courts.
In this controversial situation, individuals of the prosecution as well as judges act as important leaders, holding the power to decide whether saving time and court resources overrides the right of each defendant to a fair trial. While the constitutionality of plea-bargaining has long been controversial, the moral direction in which the American criminal justice system is headed is a reality that we Americans face today. This research proposes to assess the advantages and disadvantages of the plea bargaining system from a political leadership standpoint, and ultimately answer the research question of whether or not this mode of prosecution should be promoted within the modern American court system.
The word justice originally comes from the Latin jus, meaning “right” or “law”. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “just” person as one who typically “does what is morally right”, with the word fair as a close synonym (Pomerleau, p. 1). After living without rights under the oppressive British government, the founding fathers of America believed that fair trials were “what was morally right” for this country. The right to fair trials available to the criminally accused was such an important right to the early Americans that several states refused voting to ratify the constitution unless such rights were stated explicitly. The theory of justice is a key element of democracy found within the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, our pledge of allegiance, and for our purposes, the American court system.
The sixth constitutional amendment in particular guarantees the right to a fair trial to all criminally accused individuals, and is stated as follows: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
Although “justice” is not explicitly found within this amendment, it is implied through these guaranteed rights that were included with the specific purpose of preventing elements of a trial that could work unjustly against an accused person, including trials that are excessive in length, overseen by coerced jurors, and lacking of trained legal counsel available for the defendants assistance. In essence, justice is an intended provision to all accused criminals to empower them to prove their potential innocence as well as to limit the prosecutorial power of the state.
Over two hundred years later, we face the pressing issues of insufficient federal funding and overcrowded court dockets. These issues press the need for the plea bargaining system as a shortcut solution that has nearly destroyed the framers’ dream of fair trials for all. In our capitalist nation controlled heavily by business interests and characterized by a limited national government, it is no surprise that our court system has embraced this efficient mode of prosecution at the expense of seemingly “outdated” due process rights. Despite the detrimental effects plea-bargaining has on the deliverance of justice as well as on the lives of individuals, this institution is prevailing with the support of national leadership. The leaders of the Supreme Court stated in their majority opinion in Santobello v. New York in 1971 that plea-bargaining is “an essential component to the administration of justice”.
Chief Justice Burger even explained the plea bargaining system as something that needs to be encouraged, because “if every criminal charge were subjected to a full-scale trial, the states and the federal government would need to multiply by many times the number of judges and court facilities.” (Langbein, 1979, p. 3). We can proceed from the basis that for plea bargaining to become a staple in the American court system, this practice of offering less severe charges to indicted defendants must serve as advantageous to at least one of the members of the courtroom workgroup, presumably the prosecution. However from a leadership standpoint, the institution of plea-bargaining can actually be viewed as a utilitarian mode of problem solving, as it promotes the immediate interests of each courtroom workgroup member, including the defendant.
According a lecture presented by Dr. Williams, a criminal justice professor at Appalachian State University, the plea bargain has become so prominent directly from how beneficial it is to each party involved, creating a wide base of support for this method and thus eliminating what would otherwise be an adversarial environment of preparing for a trial. “In today’s courts, a trial is something that no one has the time for,” Williams commented in her class lecture. Based on the overwhelming caseloads under the responsibility of both the prosecution and the defense, as well as what would become of the already overcrowded dockets under the responsibility of judges, achieving a constitutionally-guaranteed fair trial for each criminal defendant would be beyond impossible. With a plea agreement, the judges can move swiftly through courtroom proceedings, prosecutors and attorneys can close cases in a timely manner, and defendants benefit from the less severe charges and thus sanctions that these agreements provide.
“Lesser charges are not only good news for a criminal defendant, but it makes the attorneys look good too, “ Dr. Williams explained, “because they get to say to future clients, I can easily and quickly negotiate optimal outcomes for my clients”. By using plea agreements to “speed up” the daily court routine, resources and time may be spent on other, perhaps more pressing, cases. Plea agreements may also eliminate the need to spend time and resources on “dead end” trials, trials that are arguably unnecessary based on undisputable evidence against a defendant or perhaps a lengthy record of a defendants prior charges that would ensure his/her conviction regardless of whether or not the trial process was completed.
Although the specific numbers vary nationally, the overarching majority of defendants in all states are repeat offenders, in which cases the constitutional “presumption of innocence” is highly unrealistic. It is arguable that despite the surrounding controversy, plea-bargaining is a fully constitutional practice. A plea bargain, as any other sort of business agreement, is rooted firmly within the consent of two (or more parties). With that being said, the plea bargaining system depends entirely on the defendants willingness to consent to his/her half of the agreement, which is based on the elements within the agreement that are beneficial to him/her, including fewer or less severe charges, or a less severe sentence after conviction.
Timothy Sandefur of the Pacific Legal Foundation pointed out this fundamental advantage of a plea bargain in his essay In Defense of Plea Bargaining (Sandefur, 2003, p. 31). “It is true that the Framers included a right to trial by jury among our vital constitutional guarantees, but that does not mean defendants lack the freedom to waive that right or trade it to the state in exchange for a lighter sentence,” says Sandefur, supporting the claim that although plea bargains are indeed being used as a shortcut around criminal trials, they are still a constitutional and just option as long as there is consent. This idea of a consensual contract benefits the courtroom workgroup, whereas promoting negotiation through a plea agreement leads to diplomacy, pragmatism, and compromise between the state and the defendant.
Additional arguments in favor of plea bargains claim that this method of prosecution is motivated by the interest of justice although it does not involve a constitutionally ensured trial, as it is subject to regulations to ensure fairness. An example of this is discussed in Plea Bargaining Outside the Shadow of Trial, as Stephonos Bibas of the University of Pennsylvania explains prosecutors “may not insist on a higher sentence for one defendant when they have recently given a lower sentence to a similarly situated defendant” (Bibas, 2004, p.2470). Plea bargains are not randomly decided by prosecutors, but outlined specifically by state statutes that leave limited room for corrupt choices.
In most states, defendants charged with crimes of violent, more serious nature do not even have the option of pleading guilty to less severe charges and/or sentences, outlining how plea bargaining is intended only ease caseloads on everyday court dockets to ensure efficiency. This allows the prosecution to exercise leadership authority over what cases are to be negotiated, thus promoting the interest of the general public. “Plea bargains should depend only on the severity of the crime, the strength of the evidence, and the defendants record and need for punishment” (Bibas, 2004, p.2470). In conclusion, proponents of the plea bargaining system hold firmly to the contentions that this system is efficient and beneficial for each member of the courtroom workgroup, based on contracts legitimized by consent, and overseen by legislation to strike down unfair or corrupt implementation.
Although everyone seems to be “benefiting” from the practice of plea-bargaining, one cannot simply ignore that this particular element of today’s judicial system poses a moral issue against justice. The founding fathers that penned the United States constitution intended for justice itself to be the prime objective within the court system, beginning with fair trials for all criminally accused. This deliverance of justice was long hindered throughout early America by a weak national government, weak law enforcement, poverty, and discrimination. However the due process revolution of the 1970’s, Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”, and other modern movements for justice created what can be seen as a constitutional revolution, a movement that greatly narrowed the gap between the criminally accused and their guaranteed rights (Griswold, 1971, p.711).
There is no doubt that the America has made enormous strides toward justice and democracy within the modern era, however the issue remains that today’s courts are simply too crowded to fully execute these ideals. A book review of The Emperor Has no Clothes: A Journalist Sees the Criminal Justice System by Locke A. Bowman tells the upsetting story of journalist Steve Bogira’s year spent in Courtroom 302, a Chicago courtroom with a staggering caseload with nearly three fourths of cases ending in guilty pleas, paralleling that of the guilty plea closed cases nationwide. Bowman comments that the overwhelming need to deal with the increasingly crowded caseload “demoralizes the judges stature”, dismissing his/her job as an administrator of justice and instead assuming the role of a crooked businessperson, motivated only by efficiency.
“Under ideal circumstances, you’d get a complete analysis of the defendant you’re going to sentence, but you’re not going to have that, so you take the realistic approach,” says judge Locallo, the presiding judge in Chicago’s courtroom 302 (Bowman, 2005, p. 1418). Locallo along with all other judges in the modern American courts are forced to abandon their personal integrity and instead “play along” with the assembly line mode of justice, prosecuting cases as efficiently as possible while remaining indifferent to the moral and social implications of their decisions. Locallo shockingly commented in his interview, “there is not sufficient time to be introspective, thinking time doesn’t show up on a cost benefit analysis” (Bowman, 2005, p.1419). Of course defendants are not, at least on paper, “forced” to accept guilty pleas, however the threat of harsh sanctions if found guilty is extremely coercive.
A “trial tax”, as explained by Bowman in his review, is a resulting fee a defendant is burdened with if he/she insists on a constitutionally guaranteed trial, in place to compensate the court for the time and resources exerted toward the trial (Bowman, 2005, p. 1415). If a defendant is indigent to begin with, the mere potentiality of paying for an “expensive” trial is enough drive him/her into a dead end of consenting to a plea agreement. Frighteningly, the trial tax is only an extra penalty on top of the sanctions that defendants are punished with if found guilty. The precedent case of Bordenkircher v. Hayes (1978) entailed a man named Paul Lewis Hayes who refused to plead guilty to a crime he claimed to be innocent of. The prosecution clarified to Hayes that if he did not plea guilty and “save the court the inconvenience and necessity of a trial”, that it would seek an indictment under the state habitual offenders statute that would uphold a life imprisonment sentence if found guilty.
After being found guilty, Hayes appealed, arguing that it was downright unconstitutional for the prosecution to have threatened to punish him for insisting on a right that is guaranteed by constitutional rights. The Supreme Court ruled against him, upholding his harsh sentence, ultimately permitting prosecutors to use threats and coercion to gain a defendants consent for a plea bargain (Lynch, 2003, p. 25). All arguments against the plea bargaining system are rooted within constitutional rights, claiming that the prominence of plea-bargaining weakens the role of the court as a perpetrator of justice and provides an environment for coercion and corruption. Despite the systems rampant prominence, courtroom players have no choice but to become numb to injustice because it is “omnipresent” (Bowman, 2005, p. 1420). There is little room for change in this self-perpetuating system, and as a result the role of court judges as political and social leaders is becoming obsolete.
After reviewing the arguments on both sides of the plea bargaining controversy, research must be conducted to gather data toward whether this mode of prosecution is conducive within the modern judicial system from an ethical leadership standpoint. Data from the ABA as well as other national sources of legal information is needed to indicate which geographic areas within the United States process the highest the rate of convictions form guilty pleas, so that this data may be compared to the amount of individuals within each of these areas charged with criminal activity, respectively.
This collection of data would essentially assess the overall “need” for the plea bargaining system within each area, as a high number of criminally charged constitutes a large caseload similar to that of Courtroom 302, thus factually upholding a dependency on the plea-bargaining system. Using this research design to assess necessity within select geographic areas that differ within size, population, and social factors will conclude its general conduciveness to the courts. Locally, research may be collected from the 24th District Attorneys office located in Boone, North Carolina to gather opinions of individuals working within the local bodies of prosecution and defense through a survey or poll.
This method would show the general opinion of whether or not the plea bargaining system is appropriate under their view. One benefit of this mode of research is that the opinions gathered from the poll would have been obtained from members within an actual courtroom workgroup rather than from national statistics. Another benefit of surveying individuals is that the surveys conductors may pose questions that are ethical in nature, such as whether or not the deliverance of justice is being fulfilled, and whether the individual feels as though plea-bargaining is fundamentally constitutional. The proposed survey could even be so bold as to ask whether the individual feels as though plea-bargaining is even ethical to begin with.
Conducting a survey of this nature within Boone’s local judicial office would show how thoroughly the plea bargain system is supported. The support of this system by the United States Supreme Court was already made known in the landmark opinion of Santobello v. New York in 1971, however the support of the local courts could show much more variation, and ultimately these courts are the ones who hold a greater influence on the everyday lives of citizens. An educated hypothesis can be made that due to their roles as community leaders, local judges and prosecutors will hold a higher degree of skepticism toward the institution of plea-bargaining due to its social and ethical implications. It is simple for the Supreme Court to deem this practice necessary, however the men and women who must make everyday choices that directly affect their own communities could understandably hold the contention that plea bargaining is inappropriate in their courts for their own unique reasons.
In conclusion, no one can dispute that the plea-bargaining system is essential to the modern American criminal justice system with the national caseload in mind, however the fact that it treads on individual ethics mainly of courtroom players and strays from the fundamental ideals of democracy is equally undeniable. The plea bargaining system should not be abolished as the need for efficient processing of cases will only grow more pressing into future decades, however the system is in need of reform. The plea bargain as a consensual agreement is neither unconstitutional nor unjust from an ethical standpoint, however the environment of coercion and corruption promoted within the courts stemming form the plea bargain system creates constitutional issues. Fighting the unethical prosecutorial actions is a growing issue that must be addressed, and with sufficient political support of statutory acts and advocacy groups, change is possible. Based on the progress that American leaders have already made toward positive change, further promotion of the ethical implementation of constitutional rights is undoubtedly possible.
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