December 2007 -- Last summer’s federal criminal charges against professional football player Michael Vick for running an illegal dogfighting operation raises a host of important questions about our criminal justice system—most particularly, about the very concept of justice.
Three main charges were leveled against Vick: running a dogfighting operation, financing a gambling ring, and executing dogs. Vick entered into a plea bargain under which he pled guilty to the dogfighting charge, admitted financing but not gambling on the fights, and acknowledged “having a hand in” but not executing some dogs.
In the discretion of the judge, Vick faces from one to five years’ imprisonment. The prosecutor recommended twelve to eighteen months, though he threatened more charges if Vick did not agree to the plea deal. Absent the plea agreement, and if found guilty at trial on all possible charges, Vick could have been sentenced to twenty years.
Are plea-bargaining and justice compatible?
From a legal standpoint, the evidence against Vick seemed overwhelming. It included both the physical evidence of over fifty pit bulls, as well as dogfighting and execution equipment, found on Vick’s Virginia property, as well as the statements of three alleged cohorts as to Vick’s involvement in the whole operation. Records of Vick’s financial involvement in the operation also appeared to be available to prosecutors.
From an ethical standpoint, however, the case raises troubling questions. Perhaps the one with the most pervasive impact: Are plea-bargaining and justice compatible?
Bargaining Away Justice
Plea-bargaining is an arrangement under which an accused pleads guilty to having committed a lesser offense than the one he or she is charged with, or is being threatened with, in exchange for a lesser sentence. Contrary to popular television dramas, relatively few cases actually make it to trial. It is reported that almost ninety-five percent of all felony convictions in the country are the result of plea bargains. The percentage applicable to less serious misdemeanors is likely as great, if not greater.
The pressure on the accused to enter into a plea arrangement comes frequently from aggressive prosecutors who are concerned about getting a conviction, who want to “close” as many cases as quickly as possible, and who are focused on the number of “wins” they achieve (often to bolster their political careers). The threat of excessive charges that carry extensive sentences, and the uncertainty of what may happen at trial, can sometimes induce even innocent people accused of crimes to enter into plea agreements.
Supporters of plea agreements argue that both our courts and prisons are so overburdened and overcrowded that there is no conceivable way for all criminal cases to be heard and for all those guilty to spend full terms in prison. But the pressure on the accused to plead guilty to something often comes from an unexpected source: the defense counsel. Faced with the tedium of preparing for the potentially long trial of a client who may be short of funds to pay adequate counsel fees, a defense attorney may also push for a quick resolution of the case via a plea bargain.
On its face, this procedure of bargaining over charges and punishments flies in the face of the quest for justice.
Justice is the principle of treating everyone precisely as he deserves, as manifested by his statements and actions. It is a moral virtue: Because we must make constant decisions as to what does or does not sustain and nourish our lives, the application of justice in dealing with other people is vital to our decision-making.
The admonition “judge not lest ye be judged” is wrong on both counts. All of us must and should judge. And we should want—even demand—that others judge, too, so that we can all claim justice as an active, viable principle in our lives. To treat evil people as good is to betray justice and to act against our lives and best interests; to treat good people as evil is to make a mockery of justice.
Where Is Justice?
In recommending a lenient sentence for Michael Vick, some argue, “He is a first-time offender.” But does that term refer to anyone who has “a clean record,” as Vick does, or only to those who have not actually committed any previous crimes? Is a serial killer who has killed a dozen people but who has “a clean record” in the eyes of the law a candidate for leniency? Vick’s accomplices have stated that he has engaged in these activities for some time and thus he may be more accurately defined as a first-time accused rather than a first-time offender.
Consider some other questions of justice in this case.
If Vick is indeed guilty of heinous crimes that warrant twenty years’ imprisonment in a federal penitentiary, then a sentence of less than ten percent of that term certainly does not seem like justice, does it?
If Vick is not guilty of the charges against him, but pled guilty simply out of fear of being charged and found guilty at trial of crimes with longer prison sentences, then no punishment is just, is it?
If Vick is guilty of some crimes but not others, or if the prosecutor is not certain he could get a conviction, then do we not need a jury trial to determine the crimes before we can assess the penalty?
If Vick supports the idea of “justice for all,” as I assume he does, then he would want justice for himself as well, wouldn’t he? And if so, he would want to confess to all his crimes without a plea bargain and serve the full sentence applicable to those crimes. Wouldn’t you? Shouldn’t you?
Vick’s involvement with dogfighting may not be admirable –but it should not be criminal.
And if the prosecutor wanted a plea agreement because he is so busy he can’t go to trial on all the cases he has in front of him, or because our prison space is insufficient to house all criminals for full terms, then isn’t that a confession that our judicial system is in shambles, and that justice has been preempted by administrative ineptitude or for the sake of bureaucratic convenience? If so, federal and state authorities should be called to task for their failure to fulfill one of the vital responsibilities of government: to keep our citizenry safe through an efficient criminal justice system.
Any way you look at it, a plea agreement impales the concept of justice, both for alleged criminals as well as for the rest of us. Committing Crime A and paying the penalty for Crime B is not justice. And, no, it is not partial justice, either. Justice is an all-or-nothing matter: Either a sentence is just or it isn’t.
Philosopher Ayn Rand
once said that “to place any other concern higher than justice is to devaluate your moral concern and defraud the good in favor of the evil.” That is exactly what all of the alleged reasons for plea-bargaining endorse. They place expense—the expense of hiring more prosecutors and judges and building more courtrooms and prisons—as a concern higher than justice. It isn’t, never has been, and never will be. Particularly in the richest country in the world, with the largest governmental budgets.
What Is a crime?
Another issue of justice raised in the Vick case is whether dog fighting, gambling, and killing animals should qualify as criminal acts. After all, to logically implement justice, we need first to assess the nature and criminality of the acts committed.
Properly defined, all crimes entail the violation of individual rights. Individual rights are the manifestation on a political level of our natural need for freedom. To survive, we must make choices and implement appropriate action—and we must be free to do so. Since our freedom can be restricted or restrained only by acts of force, the conclusion is clear: All crimes, under a proper legal system, must involve the use of force by one person against another. For example, murder is the forceful taking of someone else’s life, robbery is the forceful taking of someone else’s property, etc.
Animals make no conceptual choices; they are programmed by nature to act a certain way, given a particular stimulus. They can’t recognize moral boundaries or laws. They need no political freedom and have none to be violated. Therefore, they can have no rights. That’s why it’s moral for us to own them, to fence them in, to neuter them, to eat them. No, man does not need to eat fish, chickens, turkeys, pigs, lambs, cows, deer, and, yes, dogs (in many countries) to survive or to be healthy. He eats them for pleasure; they taste good.
Think that would be lawful to do if animals had rights?
Accordingly, Vick’s activities concerning dogs may not be admirable—but they should not be criminal. Because dogs are living entities, as co-living entities we might want to extend to them decent treatment. Treat what Vick did as minor violations of human civility, if anything; sanction him socially, shun him, maybe fine him, slap him on the wrist, and send him off. But to use the force of law to take away his career and liberty is not just.
Of course, gambling by and between consenting adults (e.g., casinos, race tracks, lotteries, church bingo nights, etc.) ought be perfectly legal, since it does not involve the initiation of force against another human. So, running a gambling ring should be legal as well. The gambling charges against Vick are completely without merit and should be dropped, as a matter of justice.
Michael Vick is scheduled to be sentenced on December 10, 2007 in federal court and is expected to get at least a year in prison. (He also faces felony dogfighting charges in Virginia, which carry possible sentences of up to five years each.) In the federal case, I hope United States District Judge Henry E. Hudson acts appropriately—meaning, in a manner consistent with justice—so that I may happily re-title this column “Justice Vick-torious.”