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    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
                            and language).

    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. 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, arrested in a racially motivated drug sweep by a Texas Sheriff. She resists pressure to agree to a plea bargain.
    Note to Teachers: For a Pre-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet for AP or honors classes, see American Violet Supplemental Materials.

    Students at any level 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 entire movie is 103 minutes in length.

    As the movie continues, the film's heroine, is bailed out of jail by her mother. She is then approached by the American Civil Liberties Union which has gathered evidence that the local sheriff has conducted a series of racially motivated mass arrests without probable cause. Ms. Roberts agrees to become the plaintiff in a lawsuit brought to stop the abuse and endures difficulties and tests before the case succeeds. Possible problems with showing the entire film are minor — there are some threatening domestic altercations between Ms. Roberts and her former husband which may be disturbing to some children.

    For additional discussion questions and assignments for use when the entire movie is shown, see the American Violet Supplemental Materials.

Learner Outcomes/Objectives
Description of the Snippet
Using the Snippet in Class:
      Step by Step
      Step by Step

Supplemental Materials on a Different Web Page:

AP and Honors Level Lesson Plan

Discussion Questions and Assignments for using the whole movie.


    1.   Review the film clip to make sure it is suitable for the class.

    2. .   Select the discussion questions and the suggested assignments to use in the lesson.

    Using the Snippet in Class    

    1.    Introductory Discussion

    Start the class by asking students to define plea bargaining and to describe a situation that they know about in which someone was offered a plea bargain. Guide the class discussion to at least the following points:

    • a definition of plea bargaining - 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;
    • almost all criminal cases (95%) end in a plea bargain, not a trial;
    • prosecutors have discretion about whether to charge someone with a crime or what particular crime to charge them with.

    Tell the class that after the film clip there will be a discussion about why someone accused of a crime would agree to a plea bargain, why the prosecutor would offer a plea bargain and the benefits and costs of the plea bargaining system to society, to defendants and to prosecutors.

    2.    Show the first 31 minutes of the film, ending when Dee's friend takes a plea although she was innocent and Dee sinks to the floor of the cell with her head in her hands.

    3.    After the clip has been shown, ask students what constitutional rights the accused person gives up when he or she takes a plea bargain? Here are a few rights that should be included in any discussion:
    • trial by jury;
    • the right to a unanimous verdict;
    • the right to require the government to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt;
    • the right to remain silent - a plea bargain usually provides that a defendant plead guilty to some crime;
    • the right to confront their accuser in court.
    Ask the class to identify the competing public policies involved in society's decision whether or not to have plea bargaining. Guide the discussion to cover the following points:

    • justice;
    • saving money.

    Ask the class about the interests of each stakeholder that are served by the plea bargaining system. The stakeholders are the prosecutor, the accused person, victims and society as a whole. Guide the discussion to cover the following points:

    • The accused, innocent or guilty, can avoid the cost and disruption of a trial;

    • The accused, innocent or guilty, gets a sure result and avoids the risk of harsher punishment if they go to trial;

    • The accused, innocent or guilty, can avoid the publicity a trial could involve;

    • The prosecutor gets a guaranteed conviction;

    • The prosecutor saves the expense and the time involved in a trial;

    • The victim gets a guaranteed conviction, although perhaps not the punishment that the victim would want imposed on the accused;

    • The public avoids the expense of conducting a trial on every crime charged.

    Ask the class to state the policy choices made by society when it adopted a justice system based on plea bargains. Guide the discussion to cover the following points:
    • the justice that is achieved in plea bargains, while imperfect, is enough so that it is not necessary to spend the money and devote the human resources that would be required for a criminal justice system base don trials.

    Finally, ask the class if they agree or disagree with the choices that society has made with respect to plea bargains and to support their conclusions.


Location: The snippet starts at the beginning of the movie and runs through the scene in which Ms. Robert's friend accepts a plea bargain and is released. Stop the film right after Dee sinks to the floor of the cell, her head in her hands. This is about 31 minutes into the film.

Possible Problems with this Snippet: None.

What about showing the whole movie? It's a great idea! See Note to Teachers at the top of this Snippet Lesson Plan.

For selected awards, cast and director, click here.

Reminder: Obtain all required permissions from school administrators before showing this snippet.

This film is available from Amazon.com.
    4.   Assignments:

    Students can be asked to write formal or informal essays on the following topics:

    • A look at plea bargaining from the standpoint of the victim and the victim's friends and relatives. [A strong essay would include the concepts that a lenient plea bargain will not satisfy the victims' legitimate desire to have the criminal punished, their desire for justice. However, plea bargaining spares victims the agony of a trial and the risk of feeling very badly if the defendant is acquitted.]

    • Identifying the factors which can result in plea bargains which are either too lenient or too harsh. [A good discussion will include the following points: (1) success for either side depends upon the skill of the attorneys in negotiating not just the guilt or innocence of the accused; (2) prosecutors are not required to disclose any problems with their evidence; (3) prosecutors are eager for plea bargains because it results in an easy conviction and prosecutors are judged on the number of convictions they achieve; (4) in certain situations some defense attorneys may not want to advocate strongly for their clients because the defense attorneys have to work with the prosecutors on other cases; (5) the accused may feel pressure to agree because of the disruption and cost of a trial.

    • Whether plea bargaining should be replaced with a system which allows a defendants only two choices: pleading guilty or going to trial; have the class evaluate the pros and cons of each system. This can also take the form of a debate pro or con on the proposition: Plea bargaining should be replaced with a criminal justice system in which plea bargaining would not be allowed and an accused person could only plead guilty or go to trial.

    • Set out and evaluate the most important ideas about how to reform the plea bargaining process. Another way to express this essay prompt is: How can society improve the results of the criminal justice system without substantially increasing costs.

    • Evaluate the plea bargaining system, describe the public policies which it serves and the public policy compromises that it requires, and to express and justify an opinion about whether the plea bargaining system is, overall, good public policy,
    • Students can research and write a formal essay or create a class presentation on "the prisoner's dilemma."


Essays are to be written according to the essay rubric established in class. When paragraphs are called for, they should be written according to the rubric for paragraphs established in class.

Teachers who want parental permission to show this snippet can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.

see printing instructions. TWM grants free limited licenses to copy TWM curriculum materials only to educators in public or non-profit schools and to parents trying to help educate their children. See TWM's Terms of Use for a full description of the free licenses and limits on the rights of others to copy TWM.


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