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

plea bargaining cartoon

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

Unbelievable – plea bargaining again. This topic, in one form or another, has been used an absurd amount of times. There’s so much to talk about; why can’t they come up with something? I don’t believe the world of moral philosophy has run out of interesting dilemmas to be discussed and debated, but apparently whoever comes up with these topics has. Anyway, we’re stuck with what we’re stuck with, so let’s do what we have to do.

Definitions

Plea Bargaining – This is a process in which the defendant pleads guilty in order to receive something in return. Usually, they get their charge reduced, sentence diminished, or something similar. The actual terms of the agreement are largely irrelevant to the debate, so don’t focus on those.

Ought – This means “should” and is the focal point of your case. You must explain how we determine what we should do in the U.S. criminal justice system.

Case Positions

Affirmative

1. Retributive Justice – Plea bargaining allows people to get away with being charge for less than what they actually did. Naturally, this means that the punishment no longer fits the actual crime. According to the principles of retributive justice, this should not be permitted as people should be punished according to the crimes they’ve committed.

2. Social Contract Theory – Plea bargaining is an affront to the legitimacy of the social contract. The ideas of reciprocity and tacit consent to be governed are thrown out the window because rights claims no longer matter since people can violate those claims and circumvent the punishments outlined in the social contract through a plea bargain. The practice should be abolished to preserve a legitimate social contract.

3. Categorical Imperative – The three maxims apply pretty well here. You can definitely argue that plea bargaining shouldn’t be universalizable, that it treats people as means rather than ends in and of themselves, and that it doesn’t strive toward an end in the kingdom of ends. Therefore, it should be abolished.

Negative

1. Veil of Ignorance – Imagine a world where you’ve been charged with a very serious crime. Would you want the option to plea bargain? Even if it meant everybody else was allowed to do the same? Certainly! Under Rawls’s thought experiment, if you were to strip away all your defining characteristics that contribute to your bias, and determine social policy accordingly, you’d be in favor of a world with plea bargaining. So it shouldn’t be abolished.

2. Virtue Ethics – Aristotelean virtue ethics seeks to find the proper course of action by trying to find the median between two extremes. The two extremes here are letting criminals go free, or always giving them the harshest penalty possible. Neither of those seem great, so a proper course of action would be the middle ground of allowing plea bargaining.

3. Utilitarianism – If you want to be gross and run a practical case, you can argue that plea bargaining is in the best interests of everyone. Without it, the U.S. justice system would not be able to handle all the cases that need to be prosecuted. There would be a significant backlog that would cause our system to come to a grinding halt, and that’s bad for everyone. Sure, plea bargaining might allow some people to get off with a lighter punishment, but overall it’s better for everyone.

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