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Plea Deal Definition

A plea deal is a negotiated resolution of a criminal case between the person accused of a crime and the prosecution. Plea deals are also called plea bargains, plea agreements, or charge bargaining. Criminal laws allow these arrangements if both sides and the judge agree on the deal.

A plea deal can also be denied or rethought, such as when the media gets ahold of the case or public outcry calls for harsher punishment.

What Is a Plea Deal?

Plea bargaining is a legal arrangement between the person charged with a crime, called the defendant, and the prosecution. Prosecutors work for either the state or federal government and have the authority to negotiate on behalf of the government.

In a plea deal, the defendant enters a “no contest” or guilty plea, usually to a lesser charge. In return, the defendant receives a lighter sentence or an agreement to drop other charges. A plea deal can also involve working as a witness for the government.

Key Takeaways

  • Plea deals are extremely common because it removes the risks inherent in a trial.
  • Your jurisdiction might have set penalties per crime that are required by law. These can’t be changed with a plea deal.
  • Using a plea deal will waive some of your constitutional rights so there are pros and cons
  • Prosecutors like plea deals because they guarantee a resolution.

Understanding Plea Deals

Plea bargaining is common in criminal cases to move the case quickly through the system and avoid a jury trial. It can also be used if the trial ends with a hung jury (a jury that cannot reach a verdict) to stop the case from going through a new trial. A plea deal is just a negotiation from both sides of a criminal case to find a resolution that each side can tolerate.

Suppose you face a serious charge, such as aggravated robbery. In that case, your attorney might recommend pleading guilty to the lesser offense of simple robbery. This should get you a more lenient sentence even though you may still serve jail time. If you don’t agree to the plea deal you risk being found guilty of aggravated robbery and facing a harsher sentence. Typically, prosecutors will aggressively pursue more serious charges if you reject a plea offer.

Understanding the Three Types of Plea Bargains

There are three types of plea bargains your attorney may use in your case. They all result in basically the same outcome — trying to reduce your penalties:

  • Charge bargaining: pleading guilty to a less serious charge
  • Sentence bargaining: pleading guilty in return for a lighter sentence or fewer penalties. This is in the judge’s hands, so this type of bargain can be risky. Some sentences are determined by the law and can’t be changed.
  • Fact bargaining: the prosecutors and defendants can decide what version of events should be told to the court. This hides some facts from being brought to light and is not a common method.

Plea Bargaining Process

Once you and your attorney review the facts of your case, they should let you know if you have a strong case. If there is any reason to avoid a trial, then the plea negotiations process will begin. You can also offer a plea deal and then change your mind and go to trial.

You should know that choosing a plea bargain automatically waives some rights protected by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments:

  • The right to a fair and speedy jury trial
  • The right against self-incrimination
  • The right to confront any witnesses

If you agree to the above, then you and your attorney will form a strategy that focuses on two different types of pleas:

  • Guilty — typically of a lesser crime
  • No contest

A “no contest” plea says you disagree with the charges and aren’t admitting guilt, but it will still go on your record. Because you cooperate with the courts and don’t try to fight the specific sentence, it is common for prosecutors to offer a reduced sentence.

A plea deal helps their side because they aren’t risking:

  • A jury finding you innocent at trial
  • A mistrial
  • Your attorney appealing a conviction after trial

Either side can offer a plea deal. When both sides agree, the sentence will be explained to the judge, who can sign off or deny the deal. Judges can’t reject your plea (it is solely up to you whether to plead guilty or not guilty), but they can deny any agreed-upon sentence if it doesn’t obey the law or doesn’t seem appropriate for the crime.

How Attorneys Handle Plea Deals

A criminal defense lawyer can navigate plea deals in the criminal justice system. They will know what kind of lesser charges you can aim for and the likelihood of your plea deal being approved.

Facing criminal trials without a defense attorney is extremely risky when it comes to plea bargaining.

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