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Social Origins of Plea Bargaining: Conflict and the Law in the Process of State Formation, 1830-1860

NCJ Number
Law & Society Review Volume: 33 Issue: 1 Dated: 1999 Pages: 161-246
Mary E. Vogel
Date Published
86 pages
This article studies the origins of plea bargaining during the 1830's and 1840's as part of a process of political stabilization and an effort to legitimate institutions of self-rule.
Contrary to popular perception of plea bargaining as an innovation or corruption of the post-World War II years, the practice emerged early in the American republic. Amid social conflict wrought by industrialization, immigration, and urbanization during the age of Jackson, politicians realized the potential for revolution in Europe. Local political institutions being spare and fragmentary, the courts stepped forward as agents of the state to promote social order necessary for healthy market functioning, personal security, and economic growth. Political stabilization and the legitimating of institutions of self-rule were vital to Whig efforts to reconsolidate the political power of Boston’s social and economic elite. To this end, the tradition of episodic leniency from British common law was recrafted into a new cultural form--plea bargaining-- that drew conflicts into courts while maintaining elite discretion over sentencing policy. Notes, tables, figures, references, cases, appendixes


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