The Pros and Cons of Plea Bargaining

When faced with criminal charges, a defendant often has one simple goal. That is, to minimize the potential penalty. Of course, being found innocent at trial, and being aquitted, is the best way to avoid jail time and other penalties. However, going to trial can be risky because it is impossible to predict what a jury will decide. Therefore, many defendants choose to enter a plea bargain agreement with the prosecution.

What is Plea Bargaining?

A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant in a criminal case. The prosecutor gives the defendant the opportunity to plead guilty to a lesser charge or to the original charge with less than the maximum sentence. For example, the prosecution and the defense may agree to a misdemeanor charge instead of a felony charge or the parties may agree to a sentence of 12 years instead of 20 years if the recommended sentence for that crime is 10-20 years imprisonment.

There are many factors that determine whether a plea bargain will be reached in an individual case and whether a plea bargain is a desirable outcome. Both sides will carefully weigh the strength of their case and decide whether it is prudent to go to trial. The prosecution may also consider the publicity surrounding the case and whether there is public pressure to prosecute that particular defendant to the full extent of the law. The defense will consider the individual defendant’s desire to go to trial and the seriousness of the potential sentence.

The Pros of Plea Bargaining

For the defendant, the most significant benefit to plea bargaining is to take away the uncertainty of a criminal trial and to avoid the maximum sentence.

Society also benefits from plea bargaining since the agreements lessen court congestion and free up prosecutors to handle more cases.

The Cons of Plea Bargaining

The biggest drawback to plea bargaining is for the innocent defendant who decides to plead guilty to a lesser charge in order to avoid the risk that he or she will be found guilty at trial.

Additionally, some attorneys and judges argue that plea bargaining has led to poor police investigations and attorneys who do not take the time to properly prepare their cases. They believe that instead of pursuing justice, the parties rely on making a deal and that the details of what happened and the legal consequences for those actions are less important.

Some attorneys and judges also argue that plea bargaining is unconstitutional because it takes away a defendant’s constitutional right to a trial by jury. If the defendant is coerced or pressured into a plea bargain agreement then this argument may have weight. However, if the defendant, at all times in the criminal case, retains the right to a trial by jury without pressure to make an agreement then the courts have found that plea bargaining remains constitutional.

What Happens When an Agreement is Reached

If both sides agree on a plea bargain then the plea bargain agreement will be clearly stated on the court record before a judge who will issue the agreed upon sentence. Both sides are legally required to follow the terms of the plea bargain and the agreed upon disposition of the case.

Plea bargaining can have benefits for the individual defendant and for society, whose interest is represented by the government prosecutor. However, it is important that both the defendant and the prosecutor carefully weigh their options before reaching a plea bargain agreement.

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