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What Is a Plea Bargain?

Key Takeaways:

  • There are two elements to plea bargain negotiations: the charge and the sentence.
  • Prosecutors may present defendants with a plea bargain as a “take it or leave it" type of deal.
  • There is no constitutional right to a plea bargain being offered.

A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecution and the defense 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, the unpredictability of a jury trial, entry into the American criminal justice system, a criminal 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 for lighter sentences, so it is best to have legal representation if you want to negotiate a plea bargain.

Why Are Plea Bargains Offered?

There are many reasons why prosecutors may offer you a plea bargain to resolve a criminal case. 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 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.

How Do Plea Negotiations Work?

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

Sentence bargaining allows you to negotiate regarding the terms of the punishment. If incarceration is mandatory, then you and your attorney can negotiate the length of the sentence or the length of the probation. Criminal charge bargaining or count bargaining allows you to plead guilty to a lesser crime, such as bringing a felony charge down to a lesser offense like a misdemeanor. A reduced charge is better for your criminal record and is especially important when the death penalty is a possible punishment.

There are some instances where the prosecutor may present you with a plea bargain as a “take it or leave it” deal. Discuss the offer with your attorney and weigh your options before you decide to accept the plea bargain or go forward to trial.

Is Accepting a Plea Bargain a Smart Decision?

The decision to accept or reject a plea bargain is a personal choice, and there are many things to consider. Weigh the seriousness of the alleged crime, the strength of the evidence in the case, and the prospects of a guilty verdict at trial.

Pleading guilty to a lesser charge may be important if having a serious offense on your criminal record would affect your work or future job applications. Accepting a lesser sentence from plea bargaining may allow you to avoid severe punishments and stay out of prison.

One of the criticisms of plea bargaining is that it encourages innocent defendants to plead guilty. 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. You should not feel pressured to plead guilty to a crime that you are innocent of or where your attorney believes you could earn an acquittal at trial.

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, 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. A plea bargain is not guaranteed by your constitutional rights.

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.

criminal defense attorney committed to defending you in your criminal trial will be able to assess a prosecutor’s willingness to offer a plea bargain and then be able to negotiate on your behalf.

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