Criminal Law

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What Is a Plea Bargain?

A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant to settle a criminal case under specific terms. In a plea bargain, the defendant typically pleads guilty or no contest in exchange for an agreed-upon sentence. Negotiating a plea bargain can be helpful to avoid a costly trial, a conviction on more serious charges, and harsher sentences.

In some cases, the prosecutor may agree to charge a defendant with a lesser criminal offense or dismiss some of the charges in exchange for a guilty plea. The vast majority of criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains as opposed to going all the way through a trial, which can be costly.

Negotiating a plea bargain is not something you should take lightly. Criminal defense attorneys are skilled at negotiating these deals, so it is best to have legal representation if you want to negotiate a plea bargain.

How Does a Plea Bargain Work?

Typically, a plea bargain starts with the prosecutor and defendant (or their attorney) negotiating the terms of the deal. There are two elements to the negotiation: the charges and the sentence.

Sentence bargaining may allow you to receive the minimum sentence the law calls for. Charge bargaining allows you to plead guilty to a lesser crime, such as bringing a felony charge down to a misdemeanor.

On the other hand, there are some instances where the prosecutor may present the defendant with a plea bargain as a “take it or leave it" type of deal. In this case, you may opt to discuss the offer with your attorney and weigh your options before you decide to accept the plea bargain or go forward to trial.

Having an experienced criminal defense attorney by your side can be a major asset when negotiating a plea bargain. An experienced defense attorney in your area may have prior experience working with local prosecutors, which can be helpful when trying to negotiate for a lighter sentence and avoid extra penalties. You can discuss this option with your attorney at your initial consultation, or sometimes the prosecutor may offer it later as a trial date draws closer.

Why Are Plea Bargains Offered?

There are a number of reasons why prosecutors may offer you a plea bargain to resolve a criminal case:

  • Courts are overcrowded, and the number of cases greatly outnumber the number of judges. Without plea bargains, cases could start to stack up, adding lengthy delays to trials.
  • Prosecutors' caseloads are also overloaded. Fewer cases going all the way to trial means that prosecutors can more effectively prosecute the most serious cases.
  • Defendants save time and money by not having to defend themselves at trial. Trials can be lengthy, and high-quality legal representation is expensive.

Is Accepting a Plea Bargain a Smart Decision?

The decision to accept or reject a plea bargain is a personal choice, and there are a number of factors to consider. When making your decision, it is crucial to weigh the seriousness of the alleged crime, the strength of the evidence in the case, and the prospects of a guilty verdict at trial.

Depending on your specific situation, the charge and sentence you are facing may be a critical element in determining whether you want to accept the offer or not. Pleading guilty to a lesser charge may be important if having a serious offense on your criminal record would affect your current employment or future job applications. Accepting a lesser sentence from plea bargaining may allow you to avoid severe punishments and stay out of prison.

All of that said, you should not feel pressured to plead guilty to a crime that you are innocent of. If you are considering accepting a plea bargain because you cannot afford an attorney, you may have another option available. If you qualify, you may receive a court-appointed attorney or a public defender for legal representation. If you have any doubts, speak to a qualified criminal defense attorney to determine if this is the right option for your criminal case.

Are Plea Bargains Always Available?

While plea bargaining provides benefits to the court, the prosecutor, and the defendant, there are some prosecutors who feel like a plea bargain offers no justice for victims, and so they may not offer a plea agreement. For this — and other moral, ethical, and constitutional reasons — many in the criminal law field have openly challenged the plea bargaining system.

As a result, some states or jurisdictions impose rules on the types of plea deals that prosecutors can offer or have laws prohibiting a plea deal if it is for a more serious offense.