Journals Higher Education

Coercion to Compromise

Plea Bargaining, the Courts, and the Making of Political Authority

Mary E. Vogel

Oxford Socio-Legal Studies

Plea bargaining is one of the most striking features of American courts. The vast majority of criminal convictions today are produced through bargained pleas. Often plea bargaining is imagined as a corruption of the court during the post-World War II years, paradoxically rewarding those who appear guilty rather than those claiming innocence. Yet, as Mary Vogel argues in this pathbreaking history, plea bargaining's roots are deeper and more distinctly American than is commonly supposed.

Plea bargaining arose during the 1830s and 1840s as part of this process of political stabilization and an effort to legitimate institutions of self-rule. The tradition of episodic leniency from British common law was recrafted into a new cultural form--plea bargaining--that drew conflicts into the courts while maintaining elite discretion over sentencing policy.

Created during a period of social mobility, plea bargaining presumed that those with much to lose through conviction would embrace individual reform. Today, when many defendants who come before the court have much less in the way of prospects to lose, leniency may be more likely to be regarded with cynicism, as an act of weakness by the state, and plea bargaining may grow more problematic.

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