As many as 90 percent of all criminal cases are resolved by plea bargain. 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 serious charges and jail time. Finally, for defendants, it often means receiving a reduced sentence, changes in the charge for a lesser crime, and resolving the matter quickly.
One of the main concerns with this, however, 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 people.
Entering a plea deal is a constitutional right. The Supreme Court mandates that plea bargains must be voluntary, and the defendant must know of the consequences of entering into a plea deal.
Below, we discuss the benefits of plea bargains, including the reduction of sentences or changes in the charges and, in some cases, the avoidance of jail time.
Main Benefits of Plea Bargains
From the defense standpoint, the benefits of plea bargaining are numerous. Here are some of the most commonly cited justifications for agreeing to a plea bargain.
Avoiding Jail Time
The major reason for agreeing to a plea bargain is to avoid jail time. There are major incentives to sign a plea bargain agreement. Examples of these incentives include not having to go to jail, living with the stigma associated with doing jail time, and not being separated 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, but they also might get the maximum sentence. Most people can't stand living in a state of constant anxiety and prefer certainty, so they sign plea agreements.
Reduction in Charges
The most common form of a plea bargain is a reduction in the severity of criminal charges. A lesser charge looks better on a permanent criminal record, won't have as serious an impact on future convictions (especially in "three strikes" states), and may not exclude the defendant from a variety of things that those convicted of more serious charges are prohibited from doing (eg, voting).
Reduction in Sentencing
Sometimes the prosecutor does not lower the charge but rather gives a lighter sentence. This sentence is below the maximum allowed sentence for a crime. While not nearly as advantageous as a reduction in 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
Probably the most practical reason plea bargains are sought is simply to resolve the issue as quickly as possible and move on. It may not be the most "just" outcome, but many defendants simply want to move on with their lives. The criminal justice system can take a while, especially as courts deal with heavy caseloads. A criminal trial alone may take months or years to finish. The plea bargaining process is much quicker and may allow the defendant to move on faster.
Avoid Stigmatizing Crimes or Offenses
Several crimes have a severe social stigma attached to them, and plea bargains often recognize this by offering reduced charges from a more severe crime (such as rape) in favor of a less stigmatizing offense (like assault or aggravated assault). The lesser offense 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.
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 just to avoid the uncertainty that may accompany a trial.
Plea Bargains: Final Considerations
There are cons of plea bargains. Not everyone agrees that plea bargains are really a good deal for defendants, especially where many of the considerations seem to favor time, expense, certainty, and convenience over justice.
The most major consideration is for innocent defendants who are falsely accused. Plea bargains do not allow innocent defendants to be heard by a jury trial. Innocent defendants may then face criminal convictions for crimes they didn't commit.
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. You should always discuss these matters with a criminal defense lawyer before deciding.
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 be difficult. With the help of an experienced professional, you can get insight into what your chances of winning at trial may be 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.