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Plea Bargain

Many criminal cases are resolved through a plea bargain, usually well before trial. In a plea bargain, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to one or more charges (often to a lesser charge than one for which the defendant could stand trial) in exchange for a more lenient sentence (and/or so that certain related charges are dismissed). Learn more about plea bargaining basics, the benefits and risks in entering into a plea agreement, some and the kinds of plea bargains typically negotiated.

Plea Bargain Basics

A plea bargain is an agreement in a criminal case between the prosecutor and defendant that typically involves the defendant's agreement to plead guilty, often to a lesser offense or to a reduced sentence that has been agreed upon in advance. These agreements allow for the swift resolution of 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 justice.

Plea Bargain Pros and Cons

Defendants frequently accept plea bargains to avoid a more serious charge, to have fewer charges brought against them, or to avoid the expense and stress of a trial. Plea bargains provide some security because they allow the defendant to negotiate the terms of sentencing, which under other circumstances may remain mysterious until after the trial is finished.

On the other hand, defendants who take a plea miss the opportunity to be found not-guilty; something that can happen for a variety of reasons, even in very strong cases. A defendant who takes a plea bargain waives many objections and opportunities to examine or challenge evidence against them. Appealing a plea bargain is much more difficult than appealing a decision at trail because pleas are voluntarily entered into and generally require that the defendant admit to the charges for which they are ultimately convicted.

Ultimately, a defendant should carefully consider the merits of their case and the possible outcomes at trial against the plea offered by the prosecution. The assistance of an attorney familiar with the jurisdiction and area of law can be very helpful, both in determining whether to take a plea and in negotiating a plea that is most favorable to the defendant.

Types of Plea Bargains

There are three basic kinds of plea bargains. Charge bargaining is an agreement where the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge so that greater charges will be dropped. Sentence bargaining is when the defendant agrees to plead guilty in return for a lighter sentence. Since the judge determines sentencing, not the prosecutor, this type of bargaining is not always successful. The judge may reject the plea because they disagree with the sentence, the jurisdiction may have punishments that are required by law and cannot be altered by an agreement, or the jurisdiction may have disallowed sentence bargaining altogether.

Finally, fact bargaining is the least common form of plea bargaining. The defendant agrees to stipulate to certain facts in order to prevent other facts from being brought into evidence. Most attorneys don't like fact bargaining and many courts don't allow it, which is why fact bargaining is uncommon.

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