Subject: U.S. 1991 – Present; Civics; the Law (Plea Bargaining); Diversity/African-American

Ages: 13+ (MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, violence, drug references, and language).

Length: Snippet: 31 minutes; Lesson: One and one-half 45 – 55 minute class periods.

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide:

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Students will learn about plea bargaining, the public policy decisions on which plea bargaining is based, and some of the problems with the practice. Students will address the issues raised by plea bargaining through class discussion and writing assignments.


The U.S. criminal justice system is primarily a system of plea bargains. 95% of all persons prosecuted for crimes in the U.S. end up pleading guilty in return for reduced charges or a lighter sentence. This lesson plan will provide students with a vivid illustration of the strong pressures that are brought to bear on defendants to agree to a plea bargain, regardless of whether they are guilty.


This film is a fact-based account of a young African-American mother arrested in a racially motivated drug sweep by a Texas County District Attorney. She resists pressure to agree to a plea bargain.

Note to Teachers: For a Post-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet for AP or honors classes see American Violet Supplemental Materials.

Students at any level who see this section of the movie may ask to see the rest of the film, which contains several important lessons about the power of an individual to resist injustice and to right a wrong through the legal system. The entire movie is 103 minutes in length.

After refusing to agree to a plea bargain, the film’s heroine is bailed out of jail by her mother. She is then approached by the American Civil Liberties Union which has evidence that the local District Attorney has conducted a series of racially motivated mass arrests without probable cause. Ms. Roberts agrees to become the plaintiff in a lawsuit brought to stop the abuse and endures difficulties and tests before the case succeeds. Possible problems with showing the entire film are minor — there are some threatening domestic altercations between Ms. Roberts and her former husband which may be disturbing to some children.

For additional discussion questions and assignments for use when the entire movie is shown, see the American Violet Supplemental Materials.


1. Review the film clip to make sure it is suitable for the class.


2. Select the discussion questions and the suggested assignments to use in the lesson. Think about having an attorney speak to the class about plea bargaining and some of his or her experiences with plea bargaining. If you find someone, give the attorney the discussion portions of this lesson plan to guide his or her presentation.

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1. Introductory Discussion

Start the class by asking students to define plea bargaining and to describe a situation that they know about in which someone was offered a plea bargain. Guide the class discussion to at least the following points, supplying the information if the class cannot respond to the questions:

  • a definition of plea bargaining – In a plea bargain the defendant gets a reduced sentence or the dismissal of some of the charges; in return, the defendant must plead guilty or “no contest” to one or more crimes;
  • when a person accused of a crime enters into a plea bargain, he or she waives certain constitutional rights;
  • almost all criminal cases (95%, according to the U.S. Supreme Court) end in a plea bargain, not a trial;
  • it is up to prosecutors to decide whether to charge someone with a crime or what particular crime to charge them with.

Tell the class that after the film clip, there will be a discussion about the benefits and costs of the plea bargaining system to persons accused of crimes, to prosecutors, and to society.


2. Show the first 31 minutes of the film, ending when Dee Roberts’ friend takes a plea, although she was innocent, and is allowed to go home. Dee then sinks to the floor of the cell with her head in her hands.


3. After the clip has been shown, ask students what constitutional rights the accused person gives up when he or she takes a plea bargain. Here are a few rights that should be included in any discussion; again if the class cannot supply the answers, the teacher can provide the information:

  • trial by jury;
  • the right to a unanimous verdict;
  • the right to require the government to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt;
  • the right to remain silent – a plea bargain usually provides that a defendant plead guilty to some crime;
  • the right to confront their accuser in court.

Ask the class to identify the competing public policies involved in whether or not to allow plea bargaining. Guide the discussion to cover the following points, supplying any information that the class cannot provide:

  • justice;
  • saving money.

Ask the class about the interests of each stakeholder that are served by the plea bargaining system. The stakeholders are the prosecutor, the accused person, victims and society as a whole. Guide the discussion to cover the following points:

  • The accused, innocent or guilty, can avoid the cost and disruption of a trial;
  • The accused, innocent or guilty, gets a sure result and avoids the risk of harsher punishment if they go to trial;
  • The accused, innocent or guilty, can avoid the publicity a trial could involve;
  • The prosecutor gets a guaranteed conviction;
  • The prosecutor saves the expense and the time involved in a trial;
  • The victim gets a guaranteed conviction, although perhaps not the punishment that the victim would want imposed on the accused;
  • The public avoids the expense of conducting a trial on every crime charged.

Ask the class to state the policy choices made by society when it adopted a justice system based on plea bargains. Guide the discussion to cover the following points, supplying information if the class cannot provide it:

  • the justice that is achieved in plea bargains, while imperfect, is enough so that it is not necessary to spend the money and devote the human resources that would be required for a criminal justice system base don trials.

Finally, ask the class if they agree or disagree with the choices that society has made with respect to plea bargains and to support their conclusions. The snippet starts at the beginning of the movie and runs through the scene in which Ms. Robert’s friend accepts a plea bargain and is released. Stop the film right after Dee sinks to the floor of the cell, her head in her hands. This is about 31 minutes into the film.


4. Assignments:

Students can be asked to write formal or informal essays on the following topics:

  • A look at plea bargaining from the standpoint of the victim and the victim’s friends and relatives. [A strong essay would include the concept that a lenient plea bargain will not satisfy the victims’ desire for justice, i.e., to have the criminal punished. However, plea bargaining spares victims the agony of a trial and the risk of feeling very badly if the defendant is acquitted.]
  • Identifying the factors that can result in plea bargains which are either too lenient or too harsh. [A strong essay will include the following points: (1) success for either side depends upon the skill of the attorneys in negotiating not just the guilt or innocence of the accused; (2) prosecutors are not required to disclose any problems with their evidence; (3) prosecutors are eager for plea bargains because it results in an easy conviction, and prosecutors are judged on the number of convictions they achieve; (4) in certain situations some defense attorneys may not want to advocate strongly for their clients because the defense attorneys have to work with the prosecutors on other cases; (5) the accused may feel pressure to agree because of the disruption and cost of a trial.
  • Whether plea bargaining should be replaced with a system that allows a defendant only two choices: pleading guilty or going to trial; have the class evaluate the pros and cons of each system. This can also take the form of a debate pro or con on the proposition: Plea bargaining should be replaced with a criminal justice system in which plea bargaining would not be allowed and an accused person could only plead guilty or go to trial.
  • Set out and evaluate the most important ideas about how to reform the plea bargaining process. Another way to express this essay prompt is: How can society improve the results of the criminal justice system without substantially increasing costs.
  • Evaluate the plea bargaining system, describe the public policies which it serves and the public policy compromises that it requires, and express and justify an opinion about whether the plea bargaining system is, overall, good public policy,
  • Students can research and write a formal essay or create a class presentation on “the prisoner’s dilemma.”


This Learning Guide was written by James Frieden and Mary RedClay. It was last revised on September 2, 2012.

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Using the Snippet in Class:

Step by Step
Supplemental Materials

RANDALL KENNEDY, Professor, Harvard Law School on the two alternative traditions relating to racism in America:

“I say that the best way to address this issue is to address it forthrightly, and straightforwardly, and embrace the complicated history and the complicated presence of America. On the one hand, that’s right, slavery, and segregation, and racism, and white supremacy is deeply entrenched in America. At the same time, there has been a tremendous alternative tradition, a tradition against slavery, a tradition against segregation, a tradition against racism.

I mean, after all in the past 25 years, the United States of America has seen an African-American presence. As we speak, there is an African-American vice president. As we speak, there’s an African- American who is in charge of the Department of Defense. So we have a complicated situation. And I think the best way of addressing our race question is to just be straightforward, and be clear, and embrace the tensions, the contradictions, the complexities of race in American life. I think we need actually a new vocabulary.

So many of the terms we use, we use these terms over and over, starting with racism, structural racism, critical race theory. These words actually have been weaponized. They are vehicles for propaganda. I think we would be better off if we were more concrete, we talked about real problems, and we actually used a language that got us away from these overused terms that actually don’t mean that much.   From Fahreed Zakaria, Global Public Square, CNN, December 26, 2021

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide: TWO CONTRASTING TRADITIONS RELATING TO RACISM IN AMERICA and a Tragic Irony of the American Revolution: the Sacrifice of Freedom for the African-American Slaves on the Altar of Representative Democracy.

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