Although plea bargaining is often criticized, more than 90 percent of criminal convictions come from negotiated pleas. Thus, less than 10 percent of criminal cases actually go to trial. So, what are the incentives behind plea bargaining? Turns out, it's quite complicated and doesn't simply rely on one's guilt or innocence. Below is a sampling of the various points of view among players within the criminal justice system with respect to plea bargain advantages and disadvantages.
Judges' Incentives for Accepting a Plea Bargain
For judges, the key incentive for accepting a plea bargain is to alleviate the need to schedule and hold a trial on an already overcrowded docket (court calendar). Judges are also aware of prison overcrowding and may be receptive to the "processing out" of offenders who have been charged with low-level crimes. Generally speaking, plea bargains help create more judicial economy and conservation of limited resources.
The downside to this incentive, however, is the pressure for lower income defendants who believe they're innocent to accept a plea deal because they lack the funds for a robust defense.
Why Prosecutors Engage in Plea Bargaining
For prosecutors, a lightened caseload is equally attractive. But perhaps more importantly, plea bargaining assures a conviction, even if it is for a lesser charge or crime. No matter how strong the evidence may be, no case is a foregone conclusion. Prosecutors often wage long and expensive trials but lose, as happened in the infamous O. J. Simpson murder trial.
Moreover, prosecutors may use plea bargaining to further their case against a co-defendant. They may accept a plea bargain arrangement from one defendant in return for damaging testimony against another. This way, they are assured of at least one conviction (albeit on a lesser charge) plus enhanced chances of winning a conviction against the second defendant. For example, a low-level criminal may have information that could help prosecutors in their case against a criminal kingpin. But since the first defendant is being rewarded with a better deal, the reliability of this information sometimes is questionable.
Defendants' Reasons for Plea Bargaining
For a defendant in a criminal case, plea bargaining provides the opportunity for a more lenient sentence than if convicted at trial, and to have fewer (or less serious) offenses listed on a criminal record. There's also the natural tendency to want to trade risk for certainty. This is especially true if you're being represented by an overworked public defender with little time to devote to the case. Therein lies the source of a frequent criticism of the plea bargaining system: Some defendants, even if not actually guilty of the crime, will feel compelled to take the lighter sentence instead of asserting their constitutional right to a fair trial because they cannot afford a "top-shelf" legal defense.
Evaluating Plea Bargain Advantages and Disadvantages
The decision whether to accept a plea bargain is not an easy one and will depend on the specific facts of your case, your finances, your criminal history, and other factors. It also depends on what is being offered. If you're a licensed professional and your license may be revoked after a felony conviction, pleading out for a misdemeanor charge may guarantee your ability to maintain that license and your livelihood.
The most problematic aspect of plea bargaining occurs when a defendant is actually innocent of the crime but feels pressured to take the safer path and avoid the risk of a trial. This is a dreadful situation, and it should be discussed carefully with an attorney beforehand. Some defendants enter a plea of "no contest" as a way to accept a plea bargain without admitting guilt. Ultimately, it's a decision you have to make on your own.
Discuss a Plea Bargain with an Attorney
Whether to accept a plea deal is a difficult decision. A plea bargain's advantage is that it may give you exponentially less severe penalties than a conviction at trial. Knowing your chances of victory at trial is often the key to your decision, and only an experienced criminal defense attorney can help you to make this call.