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Plea Bargains: In Depth

Plea bargains are extraordinarily common in the American legal system, accounting for roughly 90% of all criminal cases. Many countries, however, don't allow plea bargains, considering them unethical and immoral. Below is a discussion about what plea bargains are, why we use them and different types of plea bargains, as well as what happens if both parties don't live up to the terms.

What Are Plea Bargains?

Plea bargains are an agreement in a criminal case between the prosecutor and the defendant that usually involves the defendant pleading guilty in order to receive a lesser offense or sentence. They are often just considered as a way of establishing a "mutual acknowledgment" of the case's strengths and weaknesses, and don't necessarily reflect a traditional sense of "justice." In theory, courts are happy to have the respective parties work out a solution by themselves, but it does beg the question of who is best served by these deals.

Why are Plea Bargains Used? Are They a Good Idea?

The primary justifications include the following:

  • Courts are overcrowded; courts would be overwhelmed and forced to shut down.
  • Prosecutors' caseloads are also overloaded; fewer trials means that the prosecutor can more effectively prosecute the most serious cases.
  • Defendants save time and money by not having to defend themselves at trial.

These primary justifications all provide benefits to the respective players: the court, the prosecutor and the defendant, but don't inherently offer any benefit to the public or take any steps towards a truly just outcome. For this -- and other moral, ethical and constitutional reasons -- many in the legal field have openly challenged the plea bargaining system.

For example, the Attorney General of Alaska outright banned plea bargaining in 1975, and other states and localities have as well. In a 1978 study about the effect of the prohibition of plea bargaining in Alaska, the author concluded that not being able to rely on plea bargaining reinforced responsibility in every level of the judicial process and did not result in the court system being overwhelmed. In fact, the report states the following: "We conclude that the efficient operation of Alaska's criminal justice system did not depend upon plea bargaining."

Finally, work in other fields, such as "Prisoner's dilemma" studies have demonstrated that suspects have every incentive to agree to make deals that don't reflect their guilt or innocence, either out of fear or to push the blunt of the blame to someone else. Regardless of these concerns, however, plea deals continue to be a major component of the American legal system.

What Types of Plea Bargains Are There?

The U.S. generally recognizes three types:

  • Charge Bargaining: the most common form of plea bargaining, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge provided that greater charges will be dismissed. A typical example would be to plead to manslaughter rather than murder.
  • Sentence Bargaining: far less common and more tightly controlled that charge bargaining, sentence bargaining is when a defendant agrees to plead guilty to the stated charge in return for a lighter sentence. Typically this must be reviewed by a judge, and many jurisdictions simply don't allow it.
  • Fact Bargaining: this is the least common form of plea bargaining, and it occurs when a defendant agrees to stipulate to certain facts in order to prevent other facts from being introduced into evidence. Many courts don't allow it, and in general, most attorneys do not favor using fact bargains.

What Happens if Someone Breaks a Plea Deal?

A plea bargain is a contract between the defendant and the prosecutor; if either side fails to live up to its end of the agreement, the most likely remedy is to go to court to enforce the agreement. Typically, a defendant is asked to do something in return for a lesser charge. If a defendant fails to perform his or her end of the bargain, then a prosecutor can revoke the offer.

Are You Eligible for a Plea Bargain? Let an Attorney Help You

If you're facing criminal charges, you may find yourself in plea bargain negotiations with the prosecutor's office. These are important discussions and, before you accept any offers, it's critical to ensure that you have a skilled criminal defense lawyer to assist you through the process. After all, they negotiate plea bargains all the time and can advise you of likely outcomes in your case. Find an experienced criminal lawyer near you today.

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