The vast majority of criminal cases are resolved through a "plea bargain," usually well before the case reaches trial. In a plea bargain, the defendant agrees to plead guilty, usually to a lesser charge than one for which the defendant could stand trial, in exchange for a more lenient sentence, or so that certain related charges are dismissed. For both the government and the defendant, the decision whether to enter into a plea bargain can be based on:
- The seriousness of the alleged crime;
- The strength of the evidence in the case; or
- The prospects of a guilty verdict at trial.
Plea bargains are generally encouraged by the court system and have become something of a necessity due to overburdened criminal court calendars and overcrowded jails. However, there's always the reality that those lacking the resources for a vigorous legal defense may plead out regardless of their actual guilt.
How Are Plea Bargains Made?
There is a variety of ways to bargain with the prosecutor's office, from reducing charges or sentencing to agreeing to certain facts in the case. This can be best illustrated with an example of a plea bargain in a criminal case.
Suppose Dan is arrested and charged with two counts of aggravated assault/battery, based on his alleged use of a baseball bat in a street fight. A plea bargain might be reached in Dan's case in one of several ways:
- The prosecuting attorney handling the case approaches Dan and his attorney and offers to allow Dan to plead guilty to a less serious charge, such as simple assault/battery or even disorderly conduct;
- Dan agrees to plead guilty to one charge or "count" of aggravated assault/battery, in exchange for dismissal of the second count;
- The government's evidence against Dan is so strong, and the injuries suffered by the assault victim so serious, that Dan agrees to plead guilty to the original charge of aggravated assault/battery in exchange for a less severe sentence than he would likely receive if a jury found him guilty at trial; or
- Dan agrees to certain facts in the case, such as his making of threats and his use of physical violence at the time of the incident and in exchange the prosecution offers to charge him with simple assault/battery instead of an aggravated charge. Dan's admission to those facts would relieve the prosecution from having to prove them at trial.
Get Legal Help with Your Case and Potential Plea Bargain
Whether you're facing charges now or you're worried that you might in the future, at some point you'll likely consider the possibility of a plea deal. While the thought of a lighter sentence is appealing, there can be negative consequences from entering a plea deal. Or maybe you have a strong case and could likely be found not guilty if you go to trial. That's why it's important to have sound legal advice from an experienced criminal defense attorney who can honestly assess your case and lay out your options.