Criminal Law

The Pros and Cons of a Plea Bargain

Key Takeaways:

  • There are many factors to consider before entering into a plea bargain, considering the strength of the prosecution’s case and potential penalties.
  • Pros of plea bargains include saving time, getting a reduced sentence, and gaining certainty.
  • Cons of plea bargains include pleading guilty even if innocent, letting law enforcement off the hook for a poor investigation, and having a criminal record.

When facing criminal charges, you have one simple goal: to minimize the potential penalty. Going to trial can sometimes be risky because it is impossible to predict what a jury will decide. Therefore, you may choose to do what many defendants do, which is to agree to a plea bargain with the prosecution.

There are advantages and disadvantages to accepting a plea agreement, so it is important to carefully think through your options before making any decisions.

Since every case is different and everyone’s individual circumstances are different, the best way to weigh the benefits and pitfalls of a plea bargain is to hire a criminal defense attorney.

What Is a Plea Bargain?

A plea bargain is an agreement between you and the prosecutor in a criminal case. The plea bargaining process begins with a conversation between you or your attorney and the prosecutor. If you are facing criminal charges, the prosecutor gives you the opportunity to plead guilty to a lesser charge or to the original charge with less than the maximum sentence. For example, you and the prosecution may agree to a misdemeanor charge instead of a felony charge, or you could agree to a sentence of 12 years instead of 20 years if the recommended sentence for that crime is 10 to 20 years in prison.

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. These include:

  • The publicity surrounding the case
  • Whether there is public pressure to prosecute you to the full extent of the law
  • Your desire to go to trial
  • The seriousness of the potential sentence

Both sides will carefully weigh the strength of their cases and decide whether it is prudent to go to trial. This is not something that you should do on your own. Consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney before you accept a plea deal.

The Pros of Plea Bargaining

There are some big benefits of plea bargaining for a criminal defendant entering into a plea bargain. They include:

  • Certainty: The most significant benefit to plea bargaining is to take away the uncertainty of a criminal trial and avoid the maximum sentence that a conviction at trial could mean. Accepting a plea bargain could also save you a lot of money on attorney’s fees if there is a strong likelihood of a conviction anyway.
  • Time: A reduced sentence and quicker resolution to the criminal proceedings mean more time for you in the long run. You can move on quicker too.
  • Reducing court congestion: Society also benefits from plea bargaining since plea bargains reduce caseloads and free up court and legal personnel. If every criminal case went to trial, the criminal justice system would move much more slowly, and it would have a serious effect on people’s right to a speedy trial.

The Cons of Plea Bargains

Although plea bargaining has benefits, it also has its own drawbacks. Some of them include:

  • Innocent defendants pleading guilty: The biggest drawback to plea bargaining is that innocent defendants decide to plead guilty to lesser charges to avoid the risk that they will be found guilty at trial. Despite being innocent, a guilty plea means these innocent people now have criminal convictions on their records.
  • Poor police investigations: Some attorneys and judges argue that plea bargains lead to poor police investigations and attorneys who do not take the time to properly prepare their cases. They believe that instead of pursuing justice, law enforcement relies on making deals and that the details of what happened and the legal consequences of those actions are less important.
  • Constitutionality argument: Some attorneys and judges also argue that plea bargaining is unconstitutional because it takes away defendants’ constitutional right to a trial by jury. If you are coerced or pressured into a plea bargain agreement, then this argument may have weight. However, if you retain the right to a trial by jury without pressure to make an agreement, courts have found that plea bargaining remains constitutional. If the right to a jury trial is important to you, you should consider this.
  • Criminal record: You still have a criminal record if you accept a plea bargain because you are still pleading guilty to the crime.

What Happens When You Reach an Agreement?

If both you and the prosecutor agree to 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.

Plea bargaining has benefits for society, whose interests are represented by the government prosecutor. However, when prosecutors’ interests don’t align with yours, it is important that you speak with a criminal defense attorney who can help you carefully weigh your options before reaching a plea bargain.

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