SNIPPET LESSON PLAN FOR:
Plea Bargaining in the American Justice System
-- An Introduction Using a Clip from the film American Violet
Subject: U.S. 1991 - Present; Civics; Plea Bargaining;
Ages: 13+ (MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, violence, drug references
Length: Snippet: 31 minutes; Lesson: Two 45 - 55 minute class period.
Learner Outcomes/Objectives: Students will learn about plea bargaining, the policy decisions on which it is based, and some of the problems with the practice. They will work through, in advance, issues that may be raised if they or a member of their family or a friend are ever arrested and offered a plea bargain. Students will address the issues raised by plea bargaining through class discussion and writing assignments.
Rationale: The U.S. criminal justice system is primarily a system of plea bargains. 95% of all persons prosecuted for crimes in the U.S. end up pleading guilty in return for reduced charges or a lighter sentence. This lesson plan will provide students with a vivid illustration of the strong pressures that are brought to bear on defendants to agree to a plea bargain, regardless of whether they are guilty.
Description of the Film Clip: This film is a fact-based account of a young African-American mother, wrongly arrested in a racially motivated drug sweep by a Texas Sheriff. She resists pressure to agree to a plea bargain.
Note to Teachers on Showing the Entire Movie: Students who see this section of the movie may ask to see the rest of the film, which contains several important lessons about the power of an individual to resist injustice and to right a wrong through the legal system. The movie is 103 minutes in length.
2. Decide whether to present the information in the Pre-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet for American Violet through direct instruction, by having students research the process of plea bargaining on their own before watching the film, by having students read and respond to the questions in the Worksheet, or by a combination of the three methods. If using the first two methods, the questions in the worksheet are useful class discussion prompts. If using the Worksheet, review it and make any necessary modifications in light of the sophistication of the class and its prior exposure to information about the U.S. criminal justice system.
3. Select the discussion questions and the suggested assignments to use in the lesson.
Using the Snippet in Class
Plea bargains are an important part of the criminal justice system throughout the United States. In a plea bargain the defendant gets a reduced sentence or the dismissal of some of the charges. In return, the defendant must waive important constitutional rights and plead guilty or "no contest" to one or more crimes. The defendant forgoes the right to a trial and the requirement that he be convicted by unanimous jury. The defendant also must waive the right to confront his accusers and the right against self-incrimination. The case is resolved by a "bargain," a deal between the defendant and the prosecutor. 95% or more of all criminal cases in the U.S. are resolved by plea bargains.
Note that in the U.S. prosecutors have the discretion to decide whether to charge a person with a crime and which crimes to include in the charge.
Trials are extremely expensive and time consuming. There are not enough prosecutors, public defenders, judges or courtrooms to handle the trials that would result if plea bargains were not permitted. Many defendants who are not indigent do not want to pay the costs of a full-scale criminal trial. Even if it was possible to hold a substantially increased number of criminal trials, defendants wouldn't get the lenient sentences that are usually part of a plea bargain and the inmate population in jails and prisons would explode. Because plea bargaining is an efficient way to handle the volume of criminal business before the courts, it is much less expensive than would be a system that actually depended on trials. The money saved by the plea bargain system allows the states and the federal government to devote more resources to other needs, such as schools and public health.
Plea bargaining serves practical interests for most stakeholders:
"To a large extent ... horse trading [between prosecutor and defense counsel] determines who goes to jail and for how long. That is what plea bargaining is. It is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system." [emphasis supplied; citation omitted] " [Defendants] who do take their case to trial and lose receive longer sentences than even Congress or the prosecutor might think appropriate, because the longer sentences exist on the books largely for bargaining purposes. This often results in individuals who accept a plea bargain receiving shorter sentences than other individuals who are less morally culpable but take a chance and go to trial" [citation omitted]The Court held that "In today's criminal justice system, therefore, the negotiation of a plea bargain, rather than the unfolding of a trial, is almost always the critical point for a defendant." The Court also observed that "To note the prevalence of plea bargaining is not to criticize it. The potential to conserve valuable prosecutorial resources and for defendants to admit their crimes and receive more favorable terms at sentencing means that a plea agreement can benefit both parties." All Supreme Court quotations are from Missouri v. Frye, 42 Supreme Court Reporter 1399 at 1408 (2012)
Plea Bargaining Considered:
Question #1: For all parties involved, plea bargains trade justice for efficiency. From the standpoint of the public, do you agree or disagree with this public policy choice? Explain your reasons with reference to: (a) the concept that the result of the criminal process should be justice rather than the result of "horse trading" and (b) the fiscal impact and whether money would be better spent on other priorities.Most criminal defense attorneys like to maintain good relations with the prosecutors. This makes it easier for them to do their business and they may be able to get better deals for at least some of their clients in future cases. However, for other clients, they may have to choose between vigorous advocacy and maintaining a good relationship with the prosecutor.
Question #2: Defense attorneys usually charge a flat fee for representing a defendant in a criminal case, whether the case goes to trial or there is a plea. How does this affect the plea bargaining system? What can a defendant do about this problem? [Suggested Response: This is a difficult and complex question. One good response is to make sure that the defense attorney is ethical and takes his or her responsibilities seriously. This usually can be determined by checking on how the lawyer has treated other clients and thoroughly interviewing him or her. Another idea is to enter into a two-part fee agreement. There is one fee, if the lawyer obtains a certain plea bargain. Then, if the case goes to trial, there would be another fee. The exact amounts in this two-tiered fee structure should be carefully calibrated to give the attorney the proper incentives in light of the situation.]In some cases, it will be especially difficult for the prosecution to convince all of the jurors that it has proven guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This could be because a witness has a prior history that impeaches his or her credibility or because the police violated the defendant's constitutional rights and important evidence is inadmissible. In these cases, a plea bargain allows the government to get a conviction with the defendant receiving some penalty rather than merely dismissing the case because the chances of success are slight or suffering a not-guilty verdict.
Plea bargaining has been criticized because it can be used by the police to get a conviction from an innocent person. The combination of rewards and legitimate threats can endanger the correct legal outcome. Even if an innocent defendant resists pressure from the government to accept a plea bargain, the defendant may have to pay a heavy price to maintain his or her innocence. Here is an example that actually occurred in Los Angeles, California.
One of the key elements in the plea bargain system is the "trial penalty," the fact that a defendant who insists on a jury trial and is convicted will get a longer sentence than a defendant who pleads guilty and enters into a plea bargain. In addition, as the story of Alex shows, justice, even for the innocent, can be expensive. Balanced against stories such as the one described above are the millions of people who have avoided the expense of trial and received more lenient sentences by entering into a plea bargain. In addition, every day the plea bargaining system benefits society by achieving some measure of justice at tremendous cost savings.
Question #3: Studies show that people who are innocent are less likely to enter into a plea bargain than those who are guilty. Thus, innocent people who are ultimately convicted, will suffer more severely from the penalty of an increased sentence. Innocent people who are eventually acquitted will incur the costs of a defense. What are the implications of this to a justice system that relies on plea bargains?The overriding duty of the prosecutor is to see that justice is done. This means that if a prosecutor, at any point, even after conviction, becomes convinced that a person is not guilty of the crime, the prosecutor should seek dismissal of the case or try to overturn the conviction. This is exactly what the prosecutor eventually did in Alex's case. However, prosecutors are usually judged on their conviction rate. In addition, district attorneys are politicians who could sacrifice their popularity if they allowed someone to go free who was thought by large numbers of the public to be guilty. Thus, the prosecutors may push for plea bargains in which innocent people plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. On the other hand, prosecutors who want to keep up their conviction rates, may agree to plea bargains that don't adequately punish a defendant and don't effectively deter crime.
In most jurisdictions, the judge who will preside over the trial is not permitted to be involved in the plea bargain. The judge can only accept the plea bargain or reject it. The idea is that the judge who presides over the trial could become biased toward the prosecution if he knows that the defendant is thinking seriously of admitting guilt. By the same token, the prosecutor doesn't want to try a case in the Courtroom of a judge who thinks that the prosecution has been unreasonable in its plea bargain negotiations. Judges almost always accept plea bargains.
Question #4: Many people charge that the legislatures of some states and the federal Congress have increased the length of sentences for some crimes, not because the law-makers believed that the severity of the crime justified the longer sentence, but to give prosecutors an edge in plea bargaining. Is this good public policy? Explain your reasons.[End of Handout]
2. If you are using the Worksheet, on the day of class, collect the writing assignment. The responses need not be graded in detail, but students who write intelligently about the issues should receive credit for having done the work.
Step by Step
Enrichment Worksheets are a TWM innovation containing questions designed to get students thinking. Questions are focused on comprehension, application, analysis, syntheses or evaluation. Questions can be answered in class or as homework, as quickwrites, journal entries, essays, or research papers. A copy of the Worksheet in word processing format can be found at Pre-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet for American Violet.
3. Show the first 31 minutes of the film, ending when Dee's friend takes the plea although she was innocent and Dee sinks to the floor of the cell with her head in her hands.
4. Conduct class discussion based on the following prompts. Ask students to support their ideas through direct reference to occurrences in the snippet.
This Snippet Lesson Plan was written by written by James Frieden. It was published on December 31, 2012.
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