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Negotiating About Charges and Pleas: Balancing Interests and Justice


There is a worldwide movement towards alternatives to judicial decision-making for legal disputes. In the domain of criminal sentencing, in Western countries more than 95 % of cases are guilty pleas, with many being decided by negotiations over charges and pleas, rather than a decision being made after a judge or jury has heard all relevant evidence in a trial. Because decisions are being made, and people incarcerated on the basis of negotiations, it is important that such negotiations be just and fair. In this paper we discuss issues of fairness in plea-bargaining and how we can develop systems to support the process of plea and charge negotiation. We discuss how we are using Toulmin’s theory of argumentation and Lodder and Zeleznikow’s model of online dispute resolution to develop just plea bargaining systems. A specific investigation of the process of charge mentions is discussed.

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  1. On a single night, November 9–10 1938, more than 2,000 synagogues were destroyed and tens of thousands of jewish businesses were ransacked. It marked the beginning of the systematic eradication of the Jewish people—-the Holocaust—see Gilbert (2006).

  2. The pact, signed on August 23 1939, was a non-aggression pact between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that included a secret protocol for dividing the then independent countries of Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence—see Taylor (1961).

  3. On September 1 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.

  4. As did the former Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Gordon Menzies in the twenty-second Sir Richard Stawell Oration ‘Churchill and his contemporaries’ delivered at the University of Melbourne on 8 October 1955—see last accessed 23 July 2008.

  5. In this paper we use the term bargaining and negotiation interchangeably, it worth noting that there is some disquiet in some circles about the use of the term bargaining.

  6. Table 5.46.2004. It is most notable that for the more serious crimes the percentage of conviction via guilty plea drops considerably. Of the number of felony convicted of murder 69 % were by way of guilty plea.

    Bureau of Justice Statistics Source Book of Criminal Justice Statistics (, at 20 November 2006), especially tables 5.17 and 5.46. Bibas (2004) also indicates that it is impossible to know the percentage of guilty pleas that resulted from plea bargaining.

  7. Table 5.24.2007. The percentage of convictions secured by way of guilty pleas for murder in District courts is 78 % (calculated on very low numbers 117 of the 146 total).

  8. At pp 116–117.

  9. At p2560.

  10. Office of Public Prosecutions Annual Report 2003–2004 (Vict., Austl.), at 21 app. A, available at Last accessed October 28 2008.

  11. Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742 (1970). Here, the Court stated:

    [W]e cannot hold that it is unconstitutional for the State to extend a benefit to a defendant who in turn extends a substantial benefit to the State and who demonstrates by his plea that he is ready and willing to admit his crime and to enter the correctional system in frame of mind that affords hope for success in rehabilitation over a shorter period of time than might otherwise be necessary.

    Id. at 753.

  12. See last accessed 28 October 2008.

  13. A decision tree is an explicit representation of all scenarios that can result from a given decision. The root of the tree represents the initial situation, whilst each path from the root corresponds to one possible scenario.

  14. See Sect. 4.

  15. It should be noted that inferences can be provided by humans rather than machines. This occurred in the Embrace System (Yearwood and Stranierii 1999) which dealt with the discretionary issue of appeals to the Australian Refugee Review Tribunal.

  16. See Zeleznikow and Hunter (1994) and Stranieri and Zeleznikow (2005) for an excellent discussion of the use of artificial intelligence in law.

  17. The figure of 95 % is derived from the Victorian Magistrates’ Courts Sentencing Statistics: 1996/1997–2001/2002, p. 1. A brief examination of both the Victorian Magistrates’ Courts Sentencing Statistics: 1996/1997–2001/2002 and the Victorian Higher Courts Sentencing Statistics: 1997/1998–2001/2002 leads to a figure of around 97 % of all defendants who had charges decided without resort to either bench or jury trial.

  18. Magistrates’ Court of Victoria 2003–04 Annual Report, 15.

  19. Identified in part in the Pegasus Task Force Report,Reducing Delays in Criminal Cases (1992).

  20. A more detailed discussion of the implementation of the Contest Mention system is available in Serge Straijt, The ‘Contest Mention System’ in the Magistrates’ Court. Some of its effect and impact on the administration of criminal justice (Unpublished Report, 1995).

  21. At 2, 2.

  22. See especially Fisher and Ury (1981) at 17–39.

  23. Magistrates’ Court—Guidelines for Contest Mention, 3.

  24. More information about the range of services offered by Square Trade can be found at (at 20 November 2006).


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Mackenzie, G., Vincent, A. & Zeleznikow, J. Negotiating About Charges and Pleas: Balancing Interests and Justice. Group Decis Negot 24, 577–594 (2015).

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  • Plea bargaining
  • Sentencing
  • Dispute resolution
  • Justice