A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecutor and defendant that resolves the criminal case. In a typical plea bargain, the prosecutor will agree to dismiss some of the charges against the defendant in exchange for a guilty plea. Plea bargains are also known as plea deals.
The majority of criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains. Prosecutors like them because they ensure a conviction. Defendants agree to them to avoid the high risk associated with going to trial on the most serious charges against them.
A plea bargain is a negotiated agreement that ensures each side in a criminal case gets an outcome they can live with. Many criminal cases are resolved through a plea bargain, often long before the case reaches trial. The reason is simple: It avoids risk for both sides.
A plea bargain ensures that the person the government is charging with a crime ends up being convicted. Prosecutors do not like to bring cases that result in the defendant being found innocent. Securing a plea deal ensures that the government "wins" the case.
A plea bargain also saves time and resources for the government. Because the criminal justice system is overburdened, getting a relatively quick conviction with little cost or risk to the government is an attractive option.
The defendant can benefit in a plea bargain by ensuring they do not receive the worst possible outcome in their criminal case. Prosecutors have some freedom to determine what charges they want to bring against a defendant, for example, and can drop charges if they want to. Prosecutors can also seek a sentence on the higher end of federal sentencing guidelines if they choose, although a judge has the ultimate authority regarding sentencing. In a plea deal, the defendant can take the worst outcomes off the table.
Plea bargains are generally encouraged by the court system and have become something of a necessity due to overburdened criminal court calendars and overcrowded jails. That said, a person charged with a crime is not required to plead guilty to anything. While the system can put pressure on defendants to agree to a plea bargain, every criminal defendant has the constitutional right to defend their innocence at trial — the prosecution cannot prohibit you from having your day in court if that's what you truly want. That approach can come with high risk, however.
In theory, plea bargains provide benefits to the respective players: the court, the prosecutor, and the defendant. However, they don't inherently offer any benefit to the populace at large or take any steps toward a truly just outcome. For this — and other moral, ethical, and constitutional reasons — many in the legal field have challenged the criminal justice system's reliance on the plea bargaining system.
There's no easy rule to follow in deciding whether to accept a plea bargain. Factors to consider when entering into a plea bargain include the seriousness of the criminal charges, the strength of the evidence in the case, and the prospects of a guilty verdict at trial. The decision may also depend on what deal the government is offering or is willing to accept. Your criminal defense attorney can help you understand whether a plea bargain is fair.
An arrest and conviction can change everything. Fines or time in jail are the immediate concern, but a conviction will also mean a criminal record that can make it harder to find a job and housing for years to come.
If you are arrested or learn you are under investigation, the first thing you should do is contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. You can search LawInfo's legal directory to find a local criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights and help you determine the best way to proceed with mounting a defense.