Although plea bargaining is often criticized, more than 90 percent of criminal convictions come from negotiated pleas. Thus, less than 10 percent of criminal cases actually go to trial. So, what are the incentives behind plea bargaining? Turns out, it's quite complicated and doesn't simply rely on one's guilt or innocence. Below is a sampling of the various points of view among different players within the criminal justice system with respect to plea bargaining, looking at the pros and cons of such an arrangement.
Judges' Incentives for Accepting a Plea Bargain
For judges, the key incentive for accepting a plea bargain is to alleviate the need to schedule and hold a trial on an already overcrowded docket. Judges are also aware of prison overcrowding and may be receptive to the "processing out" of offenders who are not likely to do much jail time anyway. Generally speaking, plea bargains help create more judicial economy and conservation of limited resources.
The downside to this incentive, however, is the tendency for lower income defendants who believe they're innocent to accept a plea deal because they lack the funds for a robust defense.
Prosecutors' Incentive to Engage in Plea Bargaining
For prosecutors, a lightened caseload is equally attractive. But more importantly, plea bargaining assures a conviction, even if it is for a lesser charge or crime. No matter how strong the evidence may be, no case is a foregone conclusion. Prosecutors often wage long and expensive trials but lose, as happened in the infamous O. J. Simpson murder trial.
Moreover, prosecutors may use plea bargaining to further their case against a co-defendant. They may accept a plea bargain arrangement from one defendant in return for damaging testimony against another. This way, they are assured of at least one conviction (albeit on a lesser charge) plus enhanced chances of winning a conviction against the second defendant. For example, a low-level criminal may have information that could help prosecutors in their case against a criminal kingpin. But since the incentive for the first defendant is to get a better deal, the reliability of this information sometimes is questionable.
Defendants' Incentive to Plea Bargain
For a defendant in a criminal case, plea bargaining provides the opportunity for a lighter sentence on a less severe charge, and to have fewer (or less serious) offenses listed on a criminal record. If they are represented by private counsel, defendants also save the monetary costs of a lengthy trial by accepting a plea bargain. Therein lies the potential problem with accepting such a deal: The defendant, even if not actually guilty of the crime, will sometimes take the lighter sentence instead of asserting their constitutional right to a fair trial because they cannot afford an "top-shelf" legal defense.
Applying the Plea Bargain Pros and Cons to Your Case
The decision whether to accept a plea bargain is not an easy one and will depend on the specific facts of your case, your financial standing, your criminal history, and other factors. It also depends on what is being offered. If you're a licensed professional and your license may be revoked after a felony conviction, pleading out for a misdemeanor charge may guarantee your ability to maintain that license and your livelihood.
While pleading guilty to a crime you know you didn't commit can be quite distasteful, sometimes it's best to be pragmatic and listen to your attorney's assessment of your chances at trial. Ultimately, it's a decision you have to make on your own.
Discuss the Pros and Cons of Plea Bargains with an Attorney
Whether to accept a plea bargain is a difficult decision. While the bargain may give you exponentially less severe penalties than a conviction at trial, the bargain may still leave you with a criminal record that might hamper your future job prospects. Knowing your chances of victory at trial is often the key to your decision, and only an experienced criminal defense attorney can help you to make this call.