The vast majority of criminal cases are resolved through a plea bargain well before trial. In a plea bargain, the defendant agrees to plead guilty, usually to a lesser charge than the one for which they would stand trial. There are a number of reasons why a defendant may do this.
This article presents plea bargaining basics, the benefits and risks in entering into a plea agreement, and the kinds of plea bargains typically negotiated.
Plea Bargain Basics
Most criminal defendants will eventually be found guilty. A plea bargain is an agreement in a criminal case between the prosecutor and the accused. It typically involves the defendant pleading guilty to a lesser offense in exchange for a reduced sentence that has been agreed upon in advance.
Plea agreements swiftly resolve cases where there is little disagreement or where the evidence of guilt is overwhelming. Plea bargains increase efficiency for the courts and reduce expense and time for the defendant. Critics of plea bargaining complain that this efficiency comes at the expense of transparency and justice.
The Necessity of Plea Bargaining
The full criminal trial process can take months or even years to conclude. Realistically, the criminal justice system would grind to a halt if every criminal defendant demanded a full jury trial, including pre-trial motion hearings and post-conviction motions and appeals. There simply are not enough judges, clerks, court security, and other personnel to accommodate the full trial process for every crime committed. Prosecutors and judges want to see a quick and efficient resolution to cases whenever possible.
Plea Bargain Pros and Cons
Criminal defendants accept plea bargains in order to:
- Avoid more serious charges
- Serve a lighter sentence
- Avoid the hassle and uncertainty of a trial
Plea bargains provide some sense of security because they allow defendants to negotiate the terms of sentencing and avoid the most severe punishments.
Defendants also benefit from the time savings of plea bargaining, especially for less serious charges. Often, they face restrictions from bail orders while a case is pending. Repeated court appearances require time away from work and travel if the court is not local. The stress of the unresolved charges can wear a person down. A guilty plea can let them move on with their life.
The most significant drawback of a plea deal is the lost opportunity. A defendant who takes a plea bargain waives many potential objections to evidence that could have influenced a jury trial. A plea bargain eliminates the possibility of a "not guilty" verdict.
Another drawback for defendants is that almost every plea bargain will require the defendant to enter a plea of "guilty" or "no contest" to criminal charges, which creates or adds to their a permanent criminal record.
A defendant who accepts a plea agreement typically surrenders the right to appeal the conviction. Appeals of a plea bargain are much narrower than appeals of guilty verdicts at trial. They are often limited to instances of prosecutorial misconduct or other rare defects in the plea process.
For these reasons, it is very important to consult with a criminal defense attorney before entering a plea agreement. A skilled defense lawyer can evaluate the merits of a case and the likely outcomes of a trial against the plea offered by the prosecution. An attorney familiar with the jurisdiction and area of law can assess whether a plea offer is fair. They may even negotiate a better outcome for the defendant.
Does Accepting a Plea Bargain Mean You Are Guilty?
Put simply, yes. A plea bargain means the accused is pleading guilty or not contesting the charges. In most jurisdictions, a "no contest" plea results in a judicial finding of guilt. Defendants therefore need to consider that aspect of a plea bargain carefully.
Should You Accept a Plea Bargain If You Are Innocent?
An innocent defendant should take serious pause before accepting a plea bargain. A criminal conviction — even one that does not carry a jail sentence — can create lasting problems. The consequences of a criminal conviction might include:
- Suspension of a driver's license
- Difficulty obtaining future employment
- Exclusion from public housing
- Inability to own a firearm
- Inability to get security clearance
- Inability to qualify for certain professional licensure
- An obligation to pay fines and court costs
Also, should new criminal charges ever arise, the prior conviction could be used to enhance those new charges. This is especially problematic in states with three-strike laws.
For these many reasons, an innocent person should consult with a criminal defense lawyer who can analyze the unique circumstances of the case and help decide what is best.
Types of Plea Bargains
There are many different types of plea bargains. The type of plea bargain available to a defendant is usually determined by the defendant's criminal history and the severity of the current charges. Regardless of the type of agreement used, a judge will have to approve the agreement before it takes legal effect. A judge can refuse to honor the terms of an agreement if it seems too lenient or too harsh.
Charge bargaining is an agreement where the defendant pleads guilty in return for a lesser charge. This often takes the form of reducing a felony to a misdemeanor (for example, reducing a drug trafficking charge to a drug possession charge). By reducing the charge in plea negotiations, the accused may avoid mandatory minimum sentencing for certain types of convictions. It may also allow the defense to preserve certain civil rights for their client, like the ability to possess a firearm. Usually, the agreement will include a specified sentence.
Count bargaining (or "plea and bar") involves negotiating how many charges the accused person will face. While they might have committed several crimes at the same time, a plea deal could reduce the number of charges.
Fact bargaining can result in a lighter sentence if the prosecutor agrees to a particular set of facts about the crime.
Sentence bargaining is when the defendant agrees to plead guilty in return for a lighter sentence. Some charges have a wide range of possible penalties. For low-level cases, a sentence bargain could guarantee that punishment is a fine with no jail time. For more serious cases, the sentence bargain might take years off of a prison sentence or convert prison time into probation.
Incomplete plea bargains can also exist when the two sides are close to an agreement but can't quite pin down the exact terms. When this happens, the two sides present their incomplete agreement to the judge, who then hears from both sides about the remaining details. This is sometimes called a sentencing cap.
For example, a defendant charged with a robbery that carries a maximum sentence of ten years in prison. During the plea-bargaining process, the two sides might agree that the defendant will spend at least one year in prison, but cap the maximum sentence at five years. Each side would then argue before the judge for the sentence they think is appropriate, based on the defendant's criminal history and the facts of the crime. The judge would then order a sentence between one and five years.
Are There Special Plea Bargains for First-Time Offenders?
When a defendant has little or no criminal history, they might be able to take advantage of special programs offered by their local courts or prosecutors. Usually, these programs are not available for serious crimes. They are designed to help people accused of misdemeanors avoid getting a criminal record.
These programs, called deferred adjudication or pretrial diversion, require an up-front admission of guilt followed by the completion of a program. This might include court-mandated classes, substance abuse treatment, or community service. The defendant will return to court on a specified date to prove that all the program's requirements have been met. If they do so, their plea can be withdrawn and their charges are dismissed, leaving them with no conviction on their record.
These programs invariably require that the defendant not commit any new crimes during this time period. The court is essentially requiring proof of legal behavior to erase the record of prior illegal behavior.
These programs are not without their drawbacks. The defendant will often have to pay court costs and other associated expenses, like the cost of courses or counseling.
These programs are usually limited to first-time offenders only, but sometimes they can be repeated, depending on the local rules.
More Plea Bargain Questions? Get Help From a Criminal Law Attorney.
There is no need to rush into a plea bargain deal. If you or someone you know is uncertain about how to resolve a criminal case, an experienced local criminal defense lawyer can help. Get connected with one today.