A plea bargain is a common way to resolve criminal cases. A plea bargain is when both the prosecution and defendant come to an agreement by negotiating a plea. Either the prosecution or defense may begin plea bargain negotiations, but both sides must agree before the plea bargain is final.

There are many reasons why defendants choose to accept a plea bargain. One of the most common reasons is, it keeps criminal cases out of the trial process and may in some cases lessen the vulnerability to harsher punishments or lengthy prison sentences.

A plea bargain can benefit defendants while also benefiting judges and prosecutors. The court system is often overcrowded and burdened by the volume of criminal cases on a regular basis. Criminal trials are lengthy. They can often take months  to resolve. This can lead judges and prosecutors to seek methods that lead to a faster resolution, which is why a plea bargain is so common.  It is estimated that over 90% of criminal cases result in a plea bargain. Plea bargains will typically result in a lesser charge or recommendation of reduced sentencing. Other times, stipulations may be added to plea bargains to give certain defendants lesser punishments if they choose to testify against other defendants.

Plea bargains are always subject to the approval of the court and any laws within the jurisdiction. The ultimate decision is left in the hands of the judge during sentencing. The incentive of a recommendation of the prosecutor for a lesser charge is why many defendants choose a plea bargain. Many judges will reduce sentences and take prosecutor recommendations when defendants plead guilty because the defendants are taking responsibility for their actions.

When a guilty plea is entered, the defendant must state that they forfeit their right to a trial. The judge will make sure that you understand that you are giving up this right when you plead guilty. This makes it very difficult to appeal a plea bargain unless provisions are written into the contract.

Why People Choose to Accept Plea Bargains

  • The outcome of a trial can be unpredictable. Many defendants see a jury trial as taking a risk. Plea bargains can often provide a more predictable outcome because they allow the defendant or criminal defense attorney a chance to negotiate the terms of sentencing. A trial may lead to a less predictable sentencing outcome.
  • Defendants may plea to a less serious charge or a lesser quantity of charges.
  • If defendants have more than one charge in their case, plea bargains may allow for them to plea to fewer charges.
  • Plea bargains can be practical if the defendant wants to avoid the publicity of a trial.
  • Trials can be costly, time consuming and stressful. Many times defendants may not have the time or resources or just want to move on with their lives.

Some plea bargains may come in the form of a differed sentence. A differed sentence is where a defendant agrees to conditions such as community service, restitution, therapy and/ or probation. Once those conditions have been met, the charge is then expunged. This is more common in less serious offenses. The idea of having a charge expunged after the conditions are met, carries more incentive for defendants to accept the plea bargain.

Things to Consider Before Accepting a Plea Bargain

If you are considering accepting a plea bargain, you will want to discuss the facts of your case with your criminal defense attorney to determine if a plea bargain is in your best interest. Some things to consider are:

  •  The facts, evidence and circumstances in your case
  • How a trial might affect your sentencing
  • The options and conditions surrounding the plea bargain
  • The rights you are giving up when you plead guilty such as right to a trial and being unable to appeal the decision later
  • How jail or prison time may affect your life
  • How a trial may affect your reputation

How a Plea Bargain Works

Negotiations between the prosecutor and criminal defense can begin at almost any time during the process, subject to jurisdiction.  Plea bargains are typically done before a trail. Plea bargains can sometimes be negotiated after an arrest and before the prosecutor files charges. Sometimes plea bargains can even be negotiated while a jury returns to a courtroom with a verdict. If jurors come to split decision, the prosecution and defense attorneys often negotiate a plea bargain in order to avoid another trial. Plea deals can also be negotiated during an appeal process.

Once a plea bargain is accepted, there is no trial, and the next step is a sentencing hearing. This is where the plea bargain is presented to a judge and the final sentencing occurs. During a sentencing hearing, the judge will clearly state the details of the plea bargain for court record. The judge will also make sure that the defendant understands the rights they are waving, and the terms and conditions of the agreement.

If a defendant does not accept a plea bargain, the next step is to prepare for a trial.

Usually once a plea bargain is accepted and sentencing is complete, the matter is final. Both the state and defendant are required by law to follow the terms and conditions of the agreement.  In some cases, a defendant may have a conditions surrounding the plea bargain where they may appeal specific matters.

In most jurisdictions, judges roles are limited to sentencing and they are not part of the plea bargain process, but they still have the authority to make changes in the plea bargain if they do not agree with the sentencing. Federal judges may be directly involved in the conditions of a plea bargain because they are not bound by any recommendations by the prosecution.

Types of Plea Bargains

  • Charge bargaining – Charge bargaining is where the original charge is dropped to a lesser charge if the defendant pleads guilty. The charge being offered often carries less consequences than the original charge.
  • Sentence bargaining – Sentence plea bargaining is where the prosecutor will negotiate a guilty plea or no contest in return for a lighter sentence. It is important to note that the prosecutor does not determine your sentence, a judge does. A judge can refuse this kind of plea bargain if they disagree with the sentencing that has been offered by the prosecution. In some cases, the law may require certain sentencing for specific crimes. In certain jurisdictions (such as California), there may be certain crimes that do not allow plea bargaining.
  • Count bargaining – Count bargaining is very similar to charge bargaining. Count bargaining occurs when a defendant is charged with more than one crime. The prosecutor can offer to drop one or more of the charges, if the defendant pleads guilty to other crimes they have been charged with.
  • Fact bargaining – Fact bargaining is when a defendant will plead guilty in order to keep certain facts out of the case that lead to the conviction. In this type of plea bargain, the prosecutor may have other facts surrounding the case that could lead to harsher punishments.

California Proposition 8: Banning Plea Bargains

California passed proposition 8, also known as the victims bill of rights in 1982. The proposition requires courts to ban plea bargains under certain circumstances. These circumstances include severe or violent felonies (usually when a weapon is involved), violent sex crimes, and driving under the influence.

The law allows for plea bargains in these instances when there is insufficient evidence from the prosecutor, when testimony of a material witness is unavailable, or when the plea bargain will not result in any considerable change in the defendant’s sentence.

Criticisms and Controversies:  Plea Bargains

Plea bargains are used most often for efficiency. Defendants save time and money while the court system benefits from running more efficiently. Critics of plea bargains may feel that plea bargains end up sacrificing justice truly being served.  Critics may feel that criminals are not being punished harshly enough in certain circumstances.

On the other side, critics may feel some people may be more likely to accept a guilty plea if they are innocent because they do not want to risk going to trial. Defendants who accept a plea bargain could miss being heard in court and having an opportunity to be found not guilty. Typically, when a plea bargain is accepted, the defendant no longer has the opportunity to challenge any evidence in the case. While everyone has a right to a fair trial, critics feel that some defendants choose not to take their case to trial because a plea bargain may be more convenient and less stressful.

Some critics feel that the system of plea bargaining can lead to manipulation and coercion. Many prosecutors can be motivated by conviction rates. Especially in high profile cases, criminal charges carry a lot of fear. These critics may feel that the prosecution may have a lack of evidence in some cases, and fear can be used as a tool to get defendants to plead guilty to a lesser charge.

Other times, critics may feel that the prosecution and their lawyers may have the authority to add multiple charges, or harsher charges to a case and encourage a plea bargain in order to lower or drop them during plea bargain negotiations. Overcharging can increase the prosecutors bargaining power in plea bargains, and it is seen as additional risk by defendants. Luckily, many judges will see this tactic as bulldozing because prosecutors are put in place to be seek justice and not manipulate it.

A plea bargain is considered to be a voluntary act. Once a plea bargain is entered, it means that the defendant is admitting guilt in the case. Plea bargains are very difficult to appeal once they have been entered. This is why it is important to have an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. A good defense attorney will be knowledgeable about the laws in your area and details of the case. Experienced defense attorneys have seen a variety of different cases and understand the court system. They will be able to explain the possible outcomes when helping you decide whether taking a plea bargain is right for you. A good attorney will not only be able to explain any implications of either decision, but will also help you weigh the facts of your case in order to help you make the most favorable decision.

If you decide to take a plea bargain, having a criminal defense attorney on your side is recommended in order to help with negotiations. This is where having an experienced and aggressive attorney is crucial, because they are there to represent your best interests in negotiations. A good criminal defense attorney will have the skills and legal knowledge to negotiate a plea bargain and come to a resolution that may benefit both the prosecution and defendant.

If you are facing charges and are seeking representation, finding a criminal defense attorney is highly recommended. Do your research to ensure that you are finding a defense attorney that can represent you and your rights in court.