May 7th, 2009

The Inherent Injustice of Plea Deals

photo credit: galleryquantum

When trying an individual for a crime, the government calls upon witnesses and other relevant persons to give testimony and offer the judge and/or jury compelling information to understand and judge the facts laid before them. This judicial system is intended to allow the person to face his accusers and attempt to disprove the allegations made against him, while the prosecution aims to do the opposite. The administration of justice in such a setting depends largely upon the credible depositions and evidence of those on both sides of the issue.

Leave it to the government, then, to taint this process and create a train of unintended consequences in the wake of their pursuit of justice. One of the most common ploys of the prosecution in any case is to offer a plea bargain to those being accused in exchange for information that will help them in their objective to find the accused person(s) guilty. So sacrosanct is this collusion of courtroom chicanery that few even question its commonplace existence. However, the pursuit of plea bargains is inherently unjust—resulting in the irony of using a tool of injustice in the alleged pursuit of justice.

Federal law (U.S.C. § 201(c)(2)) states that:

Whoever … directly or indirectly, gives, offers, or promises anything of value to any person, for or because of the testimony under oath or affirmation given or to be given by such person as a witness upon a trial, hearing, or other proceeding, before any court, any committee of either House or both Houses of Congress, or any agency, commission, or officer authorized by the laws of the United States to hear evidence or take testimony, or for or because of such person’s absence therefrom … shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than two years, or both.

Supported by municipal and state laws almost universally, this statue expressly prohibits the promise or actual bestowal of compensation for one’s testimony as a witness. The purpose of such laws, of course, is to make it a crime to buy a witness—this in order to ensure fairness and justice during the criminal trial, so as to prevent the judicial system from being riddled with bribery and corruption.

A decade ago, a Federal appeals court ruled that this law—could it be true?—actually applied to the government as well. In their decision, they stated:

The judicial process is tainted and justice cheapened when factual testimony is purchased, whether with leniency or money. Because prosecutors bear a weighty responsibility to do justice and observe the law in the course of a prosecution, it is particularly appropriate to apply the strictures of sec. 201(c)(2) to their activities

It was not long afterward that the ruling was struck down by the entire 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, with the reason that the lower court’s ruling would "make a criminal out of nearly every federal prosecutor." And so, since the practice of plea bargaining permeates the entire justice system, its existence is protected and praised by those in the very same system. Thus is the totalitarian defense used in this case, where those in power brazenly explain why their lawlessness is not only justified, but necessary.

True justice demands that the government either honorably attempt to convict an accused individual, or release him. Muddying the judicial waters with backroom deals and incentive-induced witness testimony cheapens the entire process and turns our system of justice into anything but.

6 Responses to “The Inherent Injustice of Plea Deals”

  1. ldsliberty
    May 7, 2009 at 2:08 pm #

    I agree that plea deals are completely unjust. I look at this issue as another example of how our view of justice and law has gone astray. As Cleon Skousen says in “The Making of America”, the purpose of government action was initially to seek restitution for the victim whose rights had been violated. Based upon this principle, it would be up to the victim to decide whether to prosecute, offer a plea deal, or just forgive the perpetrator. It would not be up to the government – for the government would only be carrying out the wishes of the victim.

    Unfortunately today we do not have this form of justice. Rather than the criminals compensating victims, the victims get to compensate the criminals by paying for their room, board, education, medical care, etc, etc.

    If we went back to this initial view of government, then we would not only have true justice but we would also eliminate all government action which was not designed to protecting rights.

  2. Gabriel
    May 7, 2009 at 2:40 pm #

    There are three theories of punishment.

    1. Retribution
    2. Deterrence
    3. Rehabilitation

    I agree that plea bargains are not just, and this stems from our current hybrid system of punishment i.e. deterrence and rehabilitation. In the Old Testament, crimes were not committed against the “state”, they were committed against other human beings, and restitution was required.

    If you stole $100 from someone, you would be required to return the original sum plus 20% ($120). See Numbers 5:7. The idea was to restore that which had been taken from the victim, plus compensation for being deprived of his asset. This was justice, this was restitution.

    If someone steals $100 from you today, you will not receive back your money and will in fact be forced to pay for the prosecution and imprisonment of the offender through your tax money. Murray Rothbard stated:

    “The idea of primacy for restitution to the victim has great precedent in law; indeed, it is an ancient principle of law which has been allowed to wither away as the State has aggrandized and monopolized the institutions of justice. In medieval Ireland, for example, a king was not the head of State but rather a crime-insurer; if someone committed a crime, the first thing that happened was that the king paid the “insurance” benefit to the victim, and then proceeded to force the criminal to pay the king in turn (restitution to the victim’s insurance company being completely derived from the idea of restitution to the victim).”

    The State has monopolized the institution of punishment, and the rights of victims of crime have been separated from penal law. This is one way plea bargains have crept into the system and radically changed our cultures concept of justice (or lack thereof).

  3. Josh Williams
    May 14, 2009 at 12:00 pm #

    OK, here’s my opinion.

    Going at this from the standpoint of a legal argument doesn’t work. It’s the job of the circuit appeals courts to interpret the law. While you may not agree with their ruling, it’s nonetheless legally binding.

    I think a better approach would be to argue it from a moral standpoint. Show why the practice inevitably leads to moral contradictions. A strong moral argument is more likely to impress a Judge.

  4. Brandon
    October 17, 2009 at 7:46 pm #

    Hey Connor!

    Just wanted to recommend a book to you and/or your readers that includes this subject and much more. The Tyranny of Good Intentions by Paul Craig Roberts. I have to say it is one of the major influences on me deciding to go to law school.


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