Instigator / Pro

Resolved: Plea bargaining ought to be abolished in the United States criminal justice system.

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Debate details
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Category
Society
Time for argument
Two weeks
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Open voting
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Two months
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Four points
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Contender / Con
Description
This debate is for Patmos
Round 1
Published:
Thank you, Patmos, for accepting this debate. I look forward to a an exciting exchange! 

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I would like to begin by providing some important definitions:

  1. Plea bargaining: an arrangement between a prosecutor and a defendant whereby the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge in the expectation of leniency
  2. Ought: used to indicate duty or correctness, typically when criticizing someone's actions.
  3. Abolish: formally put an end to (a system, practice, or institution).
I. Proposal 

The United States criminal justice system is severely broken. I believe we should abolish plea bargaining, but continue to allow defendants to plead guilty. Moreover, we ought to decriminalize victim-less crimes such as marijuana possession and prostitution. We ought to seriously consider how and what crimes to prosecute. 

II. Values

I value justice. Justice is defined as "the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments." The criteria that I use to establish justice is the proportionality framework, namely that the punishment must fit the crime. We can all agree that cutting off a speeder's legs would be an unjust punishment because such punishment goes well beyond what is fitting. Moreover, when Brock Turner got 6 months for rape, and served only 3 months of his sentence, there was rightful outrage because his punishment was too lenient. In light of this, I argue that plea bargaining is immoral because it inherently violates the proportionality framework. 

III. Plea bargaining is a perversion of justice  

The criteria that I established in evaluating justice is the doctrine of proportionality, that the sentence should be in direct proportion to the crime that the party committed. When a defendant is offered a plea bargain, two things will happen: The punishment won't fit the crime and (2) miscarriage of justice is inevitable. 

A. The Guilty

Sub-point 1: Plea Bargaining protects rapists 

Rape is without a doubt one of the most heinous crimes anyone could commit, yet by offering them a plea bargain, they can get an easy way out and often times don't even have to register as a sex offender. For example, an Indiana University student was charged with rape in two separate cases. When he accepted a plea bargain, both felony charges were dismissed, sentenced to a year of probation, and got no prison time for a misdemeanor. [1] A quick search on the National Sex Offender Registry shows no results. There are hundreds of cases like this. As another example, a Montana teacher was sentenced to only 30 days in prison for raping a 14-year-old student who later killed herself. The judge felt that the student was partially to blame. [2] After a firestorm of outrage, he was later sentenced to 15-years. [3]  In another case, Jacob Walter Anderson was indicted on sexual assault charges after his victim accused him of raping her at a frat party. He plead no contest to a lesser charge, agreed to counsel, paid a $400 fine, and was not forced to register as a sex offender [4]. 

What are the consequences of these light sentences? It is estimated that out of 1000 sex charges, 995 will walk free [5]. This discourages victims from reporting the crime. Indeed, 3 out of 4 cases go unreported [6]. 

Sub-point 2: Plea bargaining leads to disproportionate sentencing 

The Human Rights Watch founded the following statistics [7]: 

  • Defendants convicted of drug offenses with mandatory minimum sentences who went to trial received sentences on average 11 years longer than those who pled guilty (215 versus 82.5 months).
  • Among first-time drug defendants facing mandatory minimum sentences who had the same offense level and no weapon involved in their offense, those who went to trial had almost twice the sentence length of those who pled guilty (117.6 months versus 59.5 months).
  • Among defendants who were eligible for a sentencing enhancement because of prior convictions, those who went to trial were 8.4 times more likely to have the enhancement applied than those who plead guilty.
  • Among drug defendants with a weapon involved in their offense, those who went to trial were 2.5 times more likely to receive consecutive sentences for §924(c) charges than those who pled guilty.
B. The Innocent

Imagine the following scenario: You are charged with a crime that you know you did not commit. In order to avoid a serious charge or prison sentence, you're offered a plea bargain by the prosecutor. Do you accept the offer or do you gamble with a trial where you could be found guilty? Sadly, this happens more often than not. And when you're charged with a crime, you are in a vulnerable situation and more likely to make irrational decisions. According to the innocent project at least 31 people plead guilty to serious crimes like rape and murder to avoid long sentences and to avoid trial. These innocent people served a combined total of 150 years in prison [8]. In the case of Robby Ray Dixon they pled guilty to a 1979 Mississippi rape and murder they didn’t commit. After the two men were threatened with the death penalty, they testified against a third innocent defendant (ibid). 

The innocent project further breaks down some alarming statistics: 95% of felon convictions are convicted through plea bargaining, 18% of those exonerated plead guilty, and 83% of DNA tests pointed to a different perpetrator [9]. 

If innocent people are forced to plea guilty to serious crimes they didn't commit, how many more are convicted on petty crimes and misdemeanors? That number really cant be known, but it's quite a scary number. 

IV. Plea bargaining encourages structural violence 

A. Prosecution of victim-less crimes

One of the main reasons for such a huge caseload is the sheer amount of victim-less crimes that are being prosecuted. Indeed, in the years 2015-2017, more people were arrested for marijuana possession than all violent crimes combined [10]. We ought to prefer a system that treats drug abuse like a health issue instead of a criminal issue. By legalizing marijuana, we can free up police and prosecutor's time to investigate violent crimes. 

V. Plea bargains are unnecessary 

A. Abolishing plea bargains won't clog the courts

One of the major criticisms of my proposal is the idea that it would clog the courts. When Alaska banned plea bargaining in the 70's, Most defendants pled guilty even when the state offered them nothing in exchange for their cooperation.” [11]. Additionally, research found that the court process actually accelerated. Despite the fact that the trial rate increased substantially, the number remained rather small and the conviction rates did not change. [12] 


VI. Conclusion

Plea bargaining must be abolished to ensure that proper justice is carried out. The plea bargaining process is an affront to justice because it violates the proportionality principle, encourages structural violence, and is completely unnecessary. I now turn this debate over to Patmos. 


VII. Sources 
6. Ibid



Published:
Well! I think that this post has taken long enough already so I'll just jump right in.

I would like to start by acknowledging the problems that exist in the status quo. I would even go so far as to agree with much of my opponent's proposal. Minus, of course, the statement about the total abolition of plea bargaining. The modern criminal justice system is plagued by a number of problems many of which would be exacerbated by the total abolition of plea bargaining. I would like to propose a counterplan by which the problems of the criminal justice system might be solved. But first, I will address the alleged problems that are often brought up about plea bargaining in order to prove that plea bargaining is not an inherent injustice.


Plea bargaining is NOT coercive.

(Dripps, 16) "coercion" naturally refers to threats designed to induce a particular behavior from another person. Therefore, in order for plea bargains to be coercive, the defendant must be in a worse position because of the existence of the proposal. If there are no consequences for not taking the deal, then the plea bargain is an offer. Not a threat. One may argue that defendants who choose to go to trial often face harsher sentences than those that plead guilty. But this is true regardless of whether or not a plea bargain is offered. Therefore, since the offer of a plea bargain does not leave a defendant in a worse position than without the offer, plea bargains are not coercive. 


Innocent defendants are NOT better of with trial by jury.

(Young, 11)  The "innocence problem" is indicative of the worry that plea bargains will lead to an unacceptably large number of innocent convictions. Note that no system of human justice will be perfect so it's important to at least attempt to define what is an acceptable margin of error. This objection to plea bargains rests on the assumption that jury trials address the issue of innocent convictions in a way that plea bargains do not. If, as Pro is implicitly affirming, the rate of innocent convictions by jury trial is morally acceptable, then if plea bargains produce fewer or equal innocent convictions then plea bargaining must also be acceptable. Acquiring the empirics necessary is a difficult task, but such data does exist. Gross et. al found that from 1989 to 2003 of 350 exonerations less than 6% pled guilty. This indicates that trial by jury actually poses a greater risk to innocent defendants than plea bargaining seeing as with a plea bargain you get a lesser penalty. possibly avoiding a felony charge. If enough of the plea-bargaining innocents would have been convicted anyway, and/or if enough of the non-plea bargaining innocents go on to be convicted at trial, then plea bargaining may not actually be worse than jury trials with respect to the treatment of accused innocents. 

To summarize, there is no reason to believe that juries will not repeat a prosecutor's mistake in charging an innocent defendant in the first place. and empirics prove that jury trials are in fact MORE, not LESS risky for innocent defendants. Pro provides counter-evidence that states that 18% of exonerated convicts plead guilty. But that still leaves 82% who were convicted in jury trials. In short, his evidence still supports my claim that plea bargaining leaves innocent defendants in a better position than jury trials do.


Despite this, there are still some areas wherein plea bargaining is in need of reform. To that end, I offer the following counterplan that I believe will not only satisfy my opponent's arguments but will also better serve the interest of defendants and courts alike.

The Counterplan.

I propose that the United States criminal justice system adopt a system of fixed discounts with maximum penalty caps.

Fixed discounts regularize the system of plea bargaining by establishing a fixed, non-negotiable discount in exchange for pleading guilty to a crime. The fixed discount must be large enough to provide an incentive for those defendants who believe they will lose a trial to take the deal, but not so large as to induce all defendants to give up their trial rights or to violate the proportionality principle described by my opponent. These limits would be determined by our elected representatives. They have been entrusted with making just laws. If we don't like what they do, then we vote them out of office. Such is the way of a democratic society. We also guard the proportionality principle on the opposite end of the pole by introducing what I'm going to call maximum penalty caps. These caps ensure that prosecutors don't attempt to intimidate defendants into accepting the deal by threatening outsized sentences if they don't.

Caps, therefore, limit the difference between guilty and not guilty sentences. such caps would also have the consequence of limiting the impact of racial or gender bias in sentencing.

Fixed discounts CP solves for the innocence problem.

My counterplan places innocent defendants in a better position than both the affirmative's world and the status quo. In the world of my counterplan, innocent defendants who have a strong case against them have the opportunity to accept a deal that will come with a reduced sentence, while the maximum penalty caps ensure that innocent defendants with weak cases against them are not inclined to forfeit their trial rights. This effectively eliminates Prosecutorial Screening whereby prosecutors dispose of weak cases through plea bargaining. My CP ensures that innocent defendants exist in the best possible world. One wherein they have the option either to take a plea deal if they think they can't win at trial, or go to trial without the threat of a much harsher sentence in the event of a conviction.


My CP has effectively solved for my opponent's entire third point on why plea bargaining is a perversion of justice. It has also preserved the ability of defendants to accept a fair plea deal if they decide that's the best option.

Marijuana point?

My opponent argues that plea bargaining encourages structural violence through the prosecution of victimless crimes. He talks about Marijuana possession. This solution to this has nothing to do with plea bargaining. My opponent even identifies the solution himself. Let's just legalize pot. There. Problem solved. But of course, that's not the topic we're debating.

Abolishing plea bargaining does NOT lead to increased efficiency.

My opponent cited the Alaskan ban on plea bargaining and how none of the predicted problems of such a ban came to pass. Problem is, after the ban Alaska's court system became a corrupt mess. Judges and prosecutors circumvented the ban making tons of unofficial deals with defendants. These unofficial deals came with no oversight, no accountability. They were essentially black market plea deals. With all of the nastiness that comes with the black market. 

Consider what happened when The Bronx country of NYC abolished plea bargaining. Massive court clog. Massive overcrowding. The average number of days that a Bronx defendant was detained awaiting trial increased to 160 days while the rest of NYC fell to under 120. the number of defendants detained for over a year awaiting trial saw a 47% increase. Overcrowding became so bad that judges had to frequently dismiss charges completely because there was nowhere to keep all of the defendants while they wait for their turn in court. Which naturally violates the proportionality principle. If someone commits a crime then walks because there's huge overcrowding in the court system, then a real perversion of justice has occurred. 

This overcrowding also cannot be attributed to an increase in indictments. Considering that all of this happened when the Bronx saw a drop in crime leading to 7.2% fewer indictments. (Mirsky and Kahn, 97)

By entering a counterplan I am naturally attempting to flow my opponent's value and value criteria to my side of the debate.


Conclusion

While I agree that plea bargaining in the status quo has its flaws, to abolish it completely would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As I have proven, reforms can be made to the plea bargaining system that solve for the problems my opponent has identified better than a total ban would. I have also shown that past bans (including the one my opponent cited) have led to a decrease in the quality of the judicial process in the jurisdictions that the ban took place in. Therefore, I implore the voters to consider the merits of my counterplan over my opponents' proposed solution to abolish plea bargaining entirely.


References



I now return the debate to Virtuoso.
Round 2
Published:
Thank you, Patmos. I am not able to reply to everything, but will do so in the next round.

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I. Plea bargaining is not coercive

I accept my opponent's definition of coercive. 

 "coercion" naturally refers to threats designed to induce a particular behavior from another person. Therefore, in order for plea bargains to be coercive, the defendant must be in a worse position because of the existence of the proposal. If there are no consequences for not taking the deal, then the plea bargain is an offer. Not a threat. One may argue that defendants who choose to go to trial often face harsher sentences than those that plead guilty. But this is true regardless of whether or not a plea bargain is offered. Therefore, since the offer of a plea bargain does not leave a defendant in a worse position than without the offer, plea bargains are not coercive. 
When a prosecutor threatens someone with the death penalty if they plead not guilty, then this is 100% coercive. I have shown numerous examples of this in my opening round. Moreover, because defendants are in a vulnerable situation, they are more likely to accept a plea deal even when they are innocent. Let's imagine a case where you're innocent, but because you have no bail money, you will stay in jail for the next 6 months before the trial even starts. The prosecutor asks you to accept a plea deal in exchange for probation. Would you, as an innocent person, accept this deal? Most people would and that is 100% coercive. On one hand, you will have a criminal record for the rest of your life, but on the other hand, you will stay in jail until the trial with no guarantee you'll be found not guilty. 

Because they are so coercive, prosecutors often hide evidence that could exonerate a person. One such case was George Alvarez. As the ACLU reports [1]: 

In 2006, George Alvarez was charged with assaulting a prison guard while awaiting trial on public intoxication. He knew he didn’t do it — the guards actually jumped him — but the ten year mandatory minimum sentence at trial scared him so much that he pled guilty. Little did he know that the government had a video proving his innocence, but they buried it long enough for prosecutors to extract the plea first. George spent almost four years behind bars fighting for his innocence before finally being exonerated.
II. Innocent defendants are NOT better of with trial by jury.

There will never be a perfect system in justice, and indeed juries sometimes wrongfully convict defendants. However, when one accepts a plea deal, they are automatically found guilty regardless of the evidence and regardless if they are innocent. When an innocent person takes a jury trial or a bench trial, there is at least a chance that the jury will make the right decision. It is far more difficult to appeal a wrongful conviction from a plea bargain than it is to appeal a wrongful conviction by trial. In fact, by pleading guilty, you are often times waiving the right to appeal entirely. [2] 

I am out of time and so I will continue rebuttals in the next round. 


Sources.

Published:
I'll just jump right in.

Plea bargaining is NOT coercive

Virtuoso first argues that plea bargaining is coercive because you can get harsher sentences if you plead guilty. But as I argued in my first post, this is true regardless of whether or not a plea deal is offered. So what has been accomplished by abolishing plea bargaining other than locking in the harsher sentences? Or worse, creating the same corrupt system of black-market plea bargains that the Alaskan Judicial System found itself in after it abolished plea bargaining.

Next, he says:

 Moreover, because defendants are in a vulnerable situation, they are more likely to accept a plea deal even when they are innocent.
Even if that's true in the status quo, this situation is totally rectified by the Counterplan that Virtuoso did not address in this post. See my previous post for in-depth reasoning.

Next, Let's analyze Virtuoso's proposed hypothetical and display why it doesn't really make any sense. First, the hypothetical

Let's imagine a case where you're innocent, but because you have no bail money, you will stay in jail for the next 6 months before the trial even starts. The prosecutor asks you to accept a plea deal in exchange for probation. Would you, as an innocent person, accept this deal? Most people would and that is 100% coercive. On one hand, you will have a criminal record for the rest of your life, but on the other hand, you will stay in jail until the trial with no guarantee you'll be found not guilty. 
Let's first decide whether or not this is "coercive." Where exactly has coercion taken place? There was no threat of action against the defendant. The prosecutor only offered them a way out of a 6-month stay in jail and the possibility of conviction. Moreover, according to LegalMatch.com, you can usually clear your record if you only serve probation so this deal seems really good to me and fairly far from coercive. Also, let's look at what happens to this hypothetical defendant if plea bargaining is abolished. The option to take this really good deal disappears and he's locked into the 6-month stay in jail and the possibility for conviction doesn't just disappear. How exactly is this a better situation for the defendant? It seems worse to me.


Next, he claims that prosecutors "often" hide exonerating evidence in order to secure a plea deal. To support this he provides one singular example of dirty cops and prosecutors screwing a defendant. This doesn't even come close to establishing a pattern of behavior or establishing that this happens "often." It's just cherrypicked evidence. Note that this blatantly violates Discovery and if a prosecutor does this they can be disbarred. This type of risky behavior doesn't seem like it would happen often and Virtuoso has provided no evidence that it does.


Innocent defendants are NOT better off with trial by jury.

Virtuoso claims that defendants are better off with trial by Jury because a plea bargain guarantees a conviction. True. But it's also true that you get a lighter sentence. So if you think you can't win at trial it would be in your best interest to make a deal for a lighter sentence. The maximum sentence caps in my counterplan ensure that innocent defendants are not inclined to forfeit their trial rights if they think they can win. Also, while it is also true that there is a chance that a Jury might make the right decision, the statistics that you and I both provided prove that they usually don't. Therefore, it is in the best interest of defendants to at least have the option to make a deal and get a lighter sentence.

Our argument is ultimately about choice. I believe that defendants should have the right to take their defense into their own hands and do what they think is best for themselves. To that end, I believe that the option to take a plea deal works to the benefit of defendants. Especially under my counterplan.



Missing source

In my last post, I made a claim about the Alaskan plea bargain ban and the corruption that followed. But forgot to post the source. Here it is.


Carns, Teresa W, and John Kruse. “A Re-Evaluation of Alaska's Plea-Bargaining Ban.” A Re-Evaluation of Alaska's Plea-Bargaining Ban, Alaska Law Review, scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1275&context=alr.



Military obligations.

I will be going on hiatus on this site starting Tuesday and continuing at least until June. If we're going to finish this debate we're going to have to blitz the next few rounds.




Round 3
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Round 4
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Added:
--> @blamonkey
Thank you!
Instigator
#7
Added:
--> @Virtuoso
That's a solid constructive Virt! It's one of your best I think.
#6
Added:
--> @Patmos
Awesome. Looking forward
Instigator
#5
Added:
--> @Virtuoso
Crazyness over. Post Incoming!
Contender
#4
Added:
Damn, I would've jumped on this debate if I saw it open.
#3
Added:
--> @Patmos
Take all the time you need. That's why I made 2-week arguments.
Instigator
#2
Added:
--> @Virtuoso
Sorry this is taking so long. Getting real busy all of a sudden. I will post, but it might take a minute.
Contender
#1
No votes yet