Plea-Bargaining: Ethics and Politics

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It seems that the primary argument concerning the issue of plea-bargaining boils down to the question of efficiency versus ethics. Today, 95% of court cases today are settled in non-trial dispositions and many of these non-trial dispositions are settled with plea bargains. The hard truth of the matter is that a failure to issue plea bargains would result in a clogged legal system that is too busy to function efficiently or at all. Although many people also believe that plea bargaining is inherently amoral, considering that a guilty criminal should not be given a reduced sentence that they do not deserve, this practice does, in fact, abide by traditional sentencing theory and principles.

In Mike McConville’s article for the Journal of Law and Society called “Plea Bargaining: Ethics and Politics”, he states that historically “courts tended to emphasize the importance of repentance” and that plea bargaining justifies “giving a sentence reduction to defendants who are truly remorseful” (McConville 563). But there is also a clear dichotomy in the way that plea bargaining works in today’s courts. According to McConville, remorse no longer plays a role in plea bargaining and courts have often “openly recognized the administrative basis of the discount” (564). So while plea bargaining may have once had a basis in allowing a defendant the chance of moral rehabilitation, it seems that for the most part plea bargaining serves today’s court system, especially drug courts, as an imperative to promote institutional efficiency.

Although America’s “War on Drugs” has not resulted in the kind of impact expected by the public, the effort to control and eliminate the drug problem in the United States has begun to focus more on the user than the supplier. Beginning with the youngest in the population, school programs such as D.A.R.E. place the focus on the child/individual saying no to drugs. With a focus on rehabilitation, the country has been trying to attack the drug problem from the bottom up by transforming drug users back into sober citizens. But this focus on rehabilitation does not seem to address the root of the problem. To rehabilitate is to return one to their former selves. But according to James A. Inciardi in his book Narcotics: A Global Challenge, “physical dependence is secondary to the wide range of influences that instigate and regulate drug-taking and drug-seeking” (17).

Instead of focusing on rehabilitation, which returns a drug-user to a previous way of life that initially led them to drug addiction, he stresses that the goal of should be “habilitation”. This means promoting a user “into a productive and responsible way of life” (17). This is a very important distinction, and until government drug programs begin recognizing the need to address users’ psychological dysfunctions, values, and educational skills among many others, major developments to quell the drug epidemic will not be made.