Impact of the Plea Bargaining Limitation on Court Professionals' Norms
Morley Safer is interviewing Arlene Violet, Attorney General of Rhode Island. Often the subject of media attention, Ms. Violet is an articulate ex-nun who enjoys a reputation as a vigorous crime fighter. The Sixty Minutes camera operator focuses closely on Safer as he delivers what he expects will be a knockout question.
"One of the blots on the legal landscape is plea bargaining," he begins. He mimics a defense lawyer talking to a prosecutor. "I know my client has beaten up his fifth old lady in the last six weeks. But we're going to plead not guilty, and to go to trial it's gonna take six weeks and a lot of your time and a lot of your staff time. We'll plead guilty to a lesser charge. Let's make a deal. Give him three months." Safer stares knowingly at Violet. "In reality," he accuses, "isn't that what happens in most cases?"
The Attorney General does not hesitate. "No," she says.
"Plea bargaining is a blot only when it ignores the quality of justice, when there is no parity between the plea bargain and the actual [facts] of the case. If you come in here with a case, if you're honest, you sit down and you say, " Arlene, here are the strengths of my case, here are the weaknesses, and the roll of the dice is probably such-and-such," I'll eyeball you back and say, "I disagree with you on this, this, and this. We have these strengths." Then we try to arrive at what does justice in that matter. That's what plea bargaining does.1
This dialogue illustrates the persistent tension between the public's perception of plea bargaining -- what everyone knows happens "in reality" -- and professional norms shared by actual participants in that process. The external, public perception of plea bargaining is that the practice sacrifices quality for quantity, that justice gives way to administrative efficiency. Personnel inside the court, though, perceive