The Courtroom Context of Plea Bargaining

  • Douglas W. Maynard


In Garden City, misdemeanor plea bargaining is conducted in a busy public courtroom where, simultaneously, defendants enter pleas, defense attorneys talk with clients, and a host of other conversations and activities take place. On the surface, the courtroom appears disorganized. In fact, there is an underlying order to the many and diverse engagements.


Probation Officer Defense Attorney Plea Bargaining District Attorney Public Defender 
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  1. 2.
    In language used by Perrow (1979: 246), my approach puts “an emphasis upon the daily construction and reproduction of basic social patterns by all actors in the system.” Defendants have rarely been treated for what they are—active participants in the courtroom process. For example, the study by Nardulli (1978: 110) defines defendants as “reactive agents” who are “inputs” to the court, but not fundamental to its organization or its analysis. Other studies that examine defendants include Bottoms and McClean (1976: Chapter 3), Carlen (1976), Emerson (1969: Chapter 7), Feeley (1979c), and Rosett and Cressey (1976). With the exception of Emerson, however, the studies attempt to assess the defendants’ perspective, and they do not analyze defendants’ actual behavioral contribution to courtroom structure. The most recent recommendations for analyzing the courts as organizations continue to emphasize the importance of professionals while ignoring defendants and other nonofficial participants (see Clynch and Neubauer, 1981; Burstein, 1980).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    One problem with treating the court as a type of complex organization is that it is a “loosely coupled system” (Hagan et al., 1979), wherein a number of agencies daily come together for the purpose of administering justice. Each of these institutions—police, district attorneys, public defenders, judges, probation officers, parole boards—when taken separately may have an internal organization that resembles any of various organizational models. But the criminal justice process as a whole, as Mohr (1976: 625) has suggested, does not seem capable of being “comprehended by the dominant strains of existing organization theory.” By dominant strains, Mohr (1976) refers to the Weberian (1946) ideal typical bureaucracy; Dalton’s (1959) political approach; Cohen, March, and Olsen’s (1972) “organized anarchies”; and the organization-as-firm framework of Cyert and March (1963). On this point, see also Burstein (1980), Clynch and Neubauer (1981), Feeley (1973), and Nardulli (1978).Google Scholar
  3. 10.
    Other interactional studies of courtroom settings have treated social organization as being comprised of contextually bound, sequentially placed cues of legal officials, used to accomplish such courtroom features as “shared attentiveness” (Atkinson, 1979), or the appearance of “competency,” “consistency,” and other ideals of justice (Pollner, 1979).Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    For example, Heumann (1978: 28–29) shows that, at least as far back as 1880, in Connecticut the courts were sending an average of only 8.7 percent of their cases to trial, so that nontrial dispositions have been the overwhelming means of case adjudication for a hundred years in that state, whether for high-volume or low-volume courts.Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    For a study of a small town court in Connecticut, see Feeley (1979c: Chapter 8). Buckle and Buckle (1977: 63) examined an uncrowded urban court in Massachusetts. Plea bargaining and bureaucratization were intrinsic parts of each.Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    Atkinson (1982) has argued that, in various institutional settings, an “appearance of formality” may be due to specific departures from ordinary conversational practices. Turns may be preallocated, rather than participant controlled, ratified speakers may be announced and given platforms from which to talk, utterances may be short and largely consist of question—answer sequences, and so on. In the trial court (where only one case is viewed at a time), caseload or overcrowding is clearly not the issue. Rather, attaining a focus of attention for participants and spectators, achieving ease in understanding parties’ speech, and other problems endemic to similar multiparty settings are resolved by the above-mentioned patterns of interaction. Google Scholar
  7. 14.
    See, for example, Buckle and Buckle (1977), Cicourel (1968), Emerson (1969), Mather (1974), Rosett and Cressey (1976), Skolnick (1966), and Sudnow (1965), and Chapters 6 and 7 of this book. For discussions of the relevance of “demeanor evidence” in trials rather than informal discussions see John M. Conley’s “The Law” in O’Barr (1982: 41–49), Dane and Wrightsman (1982), and Kalven and Zeisel ( 1966: 203–206 ).Google Scholar
  8. 15.
    The full transcript of negotiations in the Frank Bryan case is in Appendix 2. The negotiations are subject to further analysis in Chapters 3 and 5.Google Scholar
  9. 19.
    For a relevant discussion of the moral evaluation of hospital clients in relation to the services they receive, see Roth (1972) and Sudnow (1967). For a general treatment of the issue with reference to “street-level bureaucracies,” see Lipsky (1980: 57–58).Google Scholar
  10. 20.
    The discussion of coercion here is consistent with the framework developed by Luckenbill (1979: 107) for the study of power, defined as a collective event in which interaction is assymmetrical and compliance is produced intentionally. Moreover, the use of power can be distinguished from authority, which involves a subject’s exerting choice and consenting to outside control over one’s behavior (Luckenbill, 1979: 103).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • Douglas W. Maynard
    • 1
  1. 1.University of WisconsinMadisonUSA

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