A plea bargain is a negotiation between the prosecution and defense for a criminal defendant to enter an admission of guilt or a no-contest plea in exchange for a lenient sentence or reduction in the number of charges. As many as 90% to 95% of all criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains.
Why are plea bargains so popular with both prosecutors and defense attorneys? For prosecutors, it means not having to prosecute the case, which saves time and resources. For defense attorneys, it means potentially saving their clients from more severe charges and jail time. Finally, for defendants, it often means receiving a reduced sentence and a change from the original charges to a lesser criminal offense, resolving the matter quickly.
This article explores the benefits of plea bargains, including:
- Charge bargaining
- Sentence bargaining
- Fact bargaining
What Happens When You Take a Plea Deal?
Entering a plea deal involves waiving three constitutional rights guaranteed by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, including:
- The right to a jury trial
- The right against self-incrimination
- The right to confront witnesses
The Supreme Court mandates that plea bargains must be voluntary, and the defendant must know the consequences of entering a plea deal.
Main Benefits of Plea Bargains
From the defense standpoint, the benefits of plea bargaining are numerous. Here are some commonly cited justifications for agreeing to a plea bargain.
Avoiding Jail Time
The primary reason for agreeing to a plea bargain is to avoid lengthy prison time. There are significant incentives to sign a plea bargain agreement. Examples include:
- Not having to go to jail or prison
- Not living with the stigma or trauma associated with jail time
- Not separating from family and friends
Trading Risk for Certainty
Another primary reason that defendants agree to plea bargains is simple anxiety. If a case goes to a jury trial, they might get off or get the maximum sentence. Most people can't stand living in constant anxiety and prefer certainty, so they sign plea agreements.
Reduction in Charges
The most common form of a plea bargain is reducing the severity of criminal charges (charge bargaining). A lesser charge, such as a misdemeanor, has fewer collateral consequences and won't have as serious an impact on future convictions (especially in "three strikes" states). Convicted defendants face restrictions in voting, housing, and employment opportunities as collateral consequences.
Some jurisdictions allow for the expungement of criminal records depending on the type and severity of the offense. For example, in Minnesota, misdemeanor convictions for driving under the influence (DUI) can be expunged after a waiting period. New York is less forgiving and does not allow the expunging of DUI offenses regardless of severity.
Reduction in Sentencing
Sometimes, the prosecutor does not lower the charge but offers a lighter sentence after negotiating (sentence bargaining). This sentence is below the maximum allowed sentence for a crime.
While not nearly as advantageous as reducing the criminal charge, the difference in sentencing can be a matter of years. This reduction in jail time may be a major incentive for the defendant.
Resolve the Issue Quickly
The most practical reason plea bargains are sought is simply to resolve the issue as quickly as possible for judicial economy and to save money, as trials are expensive. The criminal justice system can take a while, especially as courts deal with heavy caseloads. A criminal trial may take months or years to finish. The plea bargaining process allows the defendant to move on faster.
Avoid Stigmatizing Crimes or Offenses
Several crimes have a severe social stigma, including sex crimes, domestic violence, and murder. Criminal lawyers recognize defendants facing more severe crimes such as rape or attempted murder will more likely plead to a less stigmatizing offense like sexual assault or aggravated assault.
While the lesser offense still leads to a conviction, the reduced charge will cause less harm to the defendant on their criminal record in the long run.
One of the biggest tools prosecutors or defendants can use is the media. As a result, many defendants simply want to keep the matter quiet without dragging the case out in front of the public to save their reputation in the community. For example, if a religious leader gets charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI).
Finally, there is a multitude of hassles that come with going to trial. The time, expense, uncertainty, and exposure can be exceptionally draining on a defendant. Many defendants will seek a plea bargain to avoid lengthy pre-trial detention and the potential loss of stable housing or employment while fighting a criminal case.
Different Types of Pleas in Criminal Law
Defendants can enter one of several pleas in criminal court to resolve their case. Each has its own implications on a defendant's criminal record.
When a defendant enters a guilty plea, they must admit to committing the charged offense in open court and enter a factual basis to the court. The defendant admits to the underlying facts, including their culpability in the crime.
Defendants may also enter a no-contest plea (nolo contendere). In that case, they do not admit guilt in open court but accept the criminal penalty for the crime. Additionally, the defendant waives the right to trial. While this type of plea still results in a criminal conviction, it cannot be used against the same defendant in a civil case as evidence of guilt. A defendant can still deny the truthfulness of the charges in a related civil proceeding.
Lastly, in an Alford plea, defendants maintain their innocence while entering a guilty plea and accepting the punishment. While rare, this is usually when the defendant acknowledges the great weight of evidence against them and that the prosecution would likely succeed in trial. Defendants take this plea rather than take a chance on the likelihood of a jury finding reasonable doubt. Unlike a no-contest plea, the defendant formally pleads guilty, which can be used in future civil proceedings despite any declarations of innocence.
The Rules of Federal Criminal Procedure allow no contest or Alford pleas with the court's permission. Although Indiana, Michigan, and New Jersey have banned these types of pleas.
One of the main concerns with plea bargains is that defendants lacking the resources for a robust defense may choose a guilty plea even if they know they're innocent of the charges. This may result in the criminal convictions of innocent defendants who are falsely accused.
Plea bargains do not allow innocent defendants the opportunity for a jury trial. Many of the considerations for plea bargains seem to favor time, expense, certainty, and convenience over justice.
Many defendants agree to plea bargains simply out of uncertainty, fear, or ignorance, in which case no one is well served -- neither the system nor the defendant. Before deciding, you should always discuss these matters with a criminal defense lawyer or your public defender.
Is a Plea Bargain Right for You? Contact a Lawyer to Learn More
Despite the various benefits of plea bargains, deciding whether it's the best path for your case can take time and effort. With the help of an experienced professional, you can get insight into your chances of winning at trial and how the plea may compare to the consequences of a judgment against you at trial. Contact a local criminal defense attorney who can discuss your case and options to proceed.