A (Moral) Prisoner's Dilemma: Character Ethics and Plea Bargaining

Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 11 (1):161-177 (2013)
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Plea bargains are the stock-in-trade of the modern American prosecutor’s office. The basic scenario, wherein a defendant agrees to plea guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence, is familiar to viewers of police procedurals. In an equally famous variation on the theme, the prosecutor requests something more than an admission of guilt: leniency will only be forthcoming if the defendant is willing to cooperate with the prosecutor in securing the conviction of another suspect. In some of these cases, the defendant is a low-level criminal who has information on a high-level malefactor who is of more interest to the police. In others, the defendant and the person she is asked to testify against are of the same criminal rank, but evidentiary weaknesses induce the prosecutor to seek the aid of one suspect in order to convict the other. In this latter version, the classic tactic of film detectives is to offer the bargain to both defendants in the hopes that one will crack and agree to reveal what he knows about the other. The defendants could either be in custody for different crimes or be accomplices in the same offense. The last variation (involving accomplices) is the subject of this Article. I take issue with the prosecutorial tactics in these cases because of the risk they create of punishing the comparatively virtuous person more than the comparatively vicious one for the same acts. As I will argue, it is the less honest person who is more likely to accept the prosecutor’s deal, leading the more honest person, who resisted temptation, to suffer greater penalties. I contend that this scenario offends distributive justice, runs counter to the idea (accepted by some) that a proper goal of the state is the cultivation of good character in the citizenry, and is perverse insofar as a person will suffer more from the prosecutor's dilemma insofar as she is more or less a person of conscience. These negative considerations notwithstanding, I do not call for the abolition of accomplice plea bargaining but argue that the problems I raise should be considered when weighing its pros and cons. This article was published in the company of a strong critical response by Guha Krishnamurthi, whose contribution I greatly appreciate.

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Andrew Ingram
University of Texas at Austin (PhD)


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