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UPDATED: Sep 13, 2019
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A plea bargain is an agreement in a criminal case between a defendant and a prosecutor in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to the original crime charged (or to a lesser charge or lighter sentence) rather than go to trial. While a defendant can request a plea bargain, the decision to offer one is solely in the hands of the prosecutor. Once a plea bargain is entered into the court record, it usually cannot be rescinded by either party.
While state law varies, a plea bargain usually results in the prosecutor either agreeing to recommend a lighter sentence to the court, requesting that the court drop one or several charges against the defendant, or agreeing not to oppose the defendant’s requested sentence. Plea bargains that are reached during a trial must show the court good cause for the delay.
Plea bargains are subject to court approval. The trial court is not bound by the agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant. Before accepting the agreement, the defendant will be questioned on whether he understands its terms, the charges, the wavier of his right to a jury trial both knowingly and voluntarily, and the consequences of the plea bargain. The defendant must also usually confess to committing the crime in court. Even if all of the above circumstances are met, the judge can reject the guilty plea and the plea bargain for various reasons.
Advantages of Plea Bargaining
While a successful plea bargain still subjects a defendant to penalties, jail, fines or community service, these penalties are always less than the maximum possible penalties available to the court. If a defendant demands a trial, he runs the risk of conviction and exposure to the maximum sentence for all charges against him or her.
For example, suppose an individual is arrested down the street from a convenience store after the owner of the store reports that she has been robbed at gunpoint. The individual is found with a bundle of money in his pocket as well an unloaded pistol. The prosecutor charges the individual with aggravated robbery, which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years in his state. However, in lieu of going to trial, the prosecutor offers a plea bargain to the defendant in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to simple robbery, and the prosecutor agrees to move to dismiss the aggravated robbery charges.
The defendant now has the choice of accepting the plea bargain for simple robbery, which carries a sentence of 1 to 5 years in the state, or going to trial charged with aggravated robbery. If he accepts the plea bargain, he avoids a jury trial, the risk of conviction, and imposition of a 25-year state prison sentence if convicted.
The plea bargaining process also has administrative advantages. Trials can be long, costly, and take up valuable court resources. While a trial by jury is every defendant’s constitutional right, the state court system in place simply does not have enough staff to try all the criminal cases on already clogged calendars. As it is, defendants who are unable to bond out or are denied bail can spend months in jail waiting for the outcome of a trial. This fact incentivizes both defendants and the prosecutor to negotiate plea bargain agreements. In fact, over 95% of felony charges nationwide end in plea bargains.
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Disadvantages of Plea Bargaining
Despite the benefits of the plea bargain for both parties and the court, plea bargains are controversial for several reasons. For instance, when a defendant agrees to plea bargain, he waives some of his constitutional rights. These rights include the right not to incriminate oneself, the right to a jury trial, and the right to confront one’s accuser. When a defendant chooses trial, he or she preserves these rights.
In addition, a plea bargain results in a conviction whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. All the consequences of having a conviction on one’s record are realized by a defendant whether the defendant was actually guilty or simply accepted a plea bargain to avoid a trial. Therefore, once a defendant accepts a plea bargain and a conviction for the crime is entered, the defendant has a criminal record which will be accessible as a public record to potential employers, landlords, and any member of the public who looks.
Although it may seem that a plea of guilty would carry less stigma than a jury determination of guilt, the court generally requires the defendant to admit that he committed the crime, therefore guilty pleas may even suggest a greater degree of certainty of guilt to the public than where a jury found a defendant guilt.
Another disadvantage to a plea bargain is that prosecutors and even judges are not bound by the bargain. A prosecutor may promise to request leniency during sentencing, but then equivocate when it actually comes time to request sentences. Or, the judge may simply decide to ignore the prosecutor’s request. Although it seems unfair, it is very difficult to retract a guilty plea, even when the prosecutor promises not to seek a certain punishment but then doesn’t follow through with the promise.