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Defense Plea Bargains

As many as 90% of all criminal cases are settled 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 client from more serious charges and jail time. Finally, for defendants, it often means receiving a reduced sentence and resolving the matter quickly.

The Benefits of Defense 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.

  • Trade risk for certainty: one of the primary reasons that defendants agree to plea bargains is simple anxiety. If a case goes to 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.
  • Avoid jail time: a big reason for agreeing to a plea bargain is to avoid jail time. Not having to go to jail and live with the stigma associated with it, and not being separated from family and friends is a huge incentive to sign a plea agreement.
  • Reduction in charges: the most common form of plea bargain, a reduction in the severity of the charge, is a great benefit to a defendant. A lesser charge looks better on a permanent 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 lessens the sentence sought to something below the maximum allowed sentence for a crime. While not nearly as advantageous as a reduction in the charge, the difference in sentencing can be a matter of years and crucially important to a 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 life.
  • Avoid stigmatizing sentences: several crimes have a severe social stigma attached to them, and plea bargains often recognize this by dropping the most stigmatizing offense (such as rape) in favor of a less stigmatizing offense (like assault).
  • Avoid publicity: 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.
  • Avoid hassles: finally, there are a multitude of hassles that come with going to trial. The time, expense and exposure can be exceptionally draining on a defendant, and many defendants will seek a plea bargain just to avoid the circus that may accompany a trial.

Not everyone agrees that plea bargains are really a good deal for defendants, especially where many of the considerations seem to favor time, expense and convenience over justice. Finally, many defendants agree to plea bargains simply out of fear or ignorance in which case no one is well served - the system or the defendant.

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