A plea bargain (alternatively, plea agreement or plea deal) is a legal arrangement in which the prosecutor makes a concession to the defendant in exchange for a guilty plea. This could mean that the defendant pleads guilty to a less serious charge, or to one of the multiple counts, in exchange for the dismissal of other accusations; or it could mean that the defendant pleads guilty to the original criminal charge in exchange for a more lenient sentence.
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American Plea Bargaining history
Early American plea deals were rare. Judges tried to persuade offenders to go to trial rather than plead guilty. Even as early as 1832, public ordinance violators may get reduced sentences if they pleaded guilty. By 1850, it was usual for defendants to plead guilty in return for reduced charges or other concessions. It was possibly the first time a prosecutor had to consider victim concerns.
The Civil War brought plea bargaining instances to the attention of appellate courts. When those courts found plea bargaining, they were as surprised as the trial court judges and overturned some convictions.
Early 20th century plea bargaining boomed despite appellate court opposition. Between 1900 and 1907, in New York County, between 77 and 83 percent of defendants pleaded guilty. In the 1920s, two scholars discovered plea bargaining was widespread. Cook County, Illinois, felony prosecutions in 1926 resulted in 96% guilty pleas.
Plea Bargains Types
Plea bargains come in numerous forms. The defendant’s prior history and the gravity of the current allegations usually decide the plea offer available. No matter what sort of agreement is utilized, a judge must approve it before it becomes legally binding. A judge may refuse to honor an agreement if the terms are excessively mild or punitive.
Pleading guilty in exchange for a reduced charge is known as charge bargaining. Often, a felony gets reduced to a misdemeanor (for example, reducing a drug trafficking charge to a drug possession charge). The accused may avoid mandatory minimum sentences by modifying the charge in plea discussions. It may also allow the defense to protect their client’s civil rights, such as gun ownership. The agreement usually includes a sentence.
Count negotiation includes discussing the number of charges the accused will face. Even if they committed many offences, a plea deal could lower the charges.
Fact bargaining might result in a reduced sentence if the prosecutor agrees to certain facts.
Sentence bargaining is when a defendant pleads guilty for a reduced sentence. Some offences have a wide variety of consequences. A sentence agreement could provide a fine and no jail time for low-level offenders. In more extreme situations, the sentence bargain may reduce or eliminate years of prison term.
Plea Bargain Benefits
Plea bargaining is the major tool used by judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to achieve individual and collective aims. The main advantage of plea bargaining for both sides is that there is no possibility of a hung jury. In circumstances when the evidence for or against a defendant is in doubt, bargaining may be an option for attorneys to reduce their possible losses. Plea bargaining can also help courts save resources for the most pressing situations.
- Plea bargains benefit prosecutors by increasing conviction rates. Others utilize plea deals to get defendants to testify against co-defendants or other accused offenders.
- Plea agreements allow prosecutors to avoid trials, which are eschewed because they are time-consuming, labor-intensive, costly, and carry no assurance of success. Prosecutors can ensure that perpetrators who are acquitted on technicalities are punished. Prosecutors can bargain away routine cases or cases with poor evidence or other obstacles, saving time and money for cases that require more attention.
- Plea negotiating permits defense attorneys to work less time and earn more money. Both public and private attorneys must efficiently dispose of matters. Public defenders sometimes have large caseloads, and private attorneys might make more money negotiating than going to trial. When prosecutors issue unjustified charges, defense attorneys might employ bargaining to reduce charges. Without cooperation from prosecutors, defense attorneys may file numerous pretrial motions or present an aggressive defense.
- Plea bargaining benefits judges. As a result, judges can preside over more efficient trials and reduce the risk of appeals. Most importantly, for some judges, plea deals relieve them of the duty of assessing guilt and allow them to share punishment with the counsel who negotiated the deal. Judges rarely decline acceptance of plea deals unless they consider the defendant is legally innocent, has been pressured into pleading guilty, or the penalty is disproportionately harsh or mild.
- In addition to reducing the severity of the penalties, plea deals give defendants some predictability in an otherwise uncertain procedure. Some defendants plead guilty to avoid the public scrutiny of a trial. Accused defendants occasionally utilize the fear of trial to persuade prosecutors to lighten their sentences. Even innocent defendants may accept favorable deals, especially if held before trial and accepting the bargain means getting out of jail (e.g., an offer of “time served”).
Problems with Plea Bargaining
Certain individuals believe plea bargains cause more harm than good. They believe that these agreements can result in cases being resolved prematurely, before the defendant fully comprehends the case against him or her. Occasionally, the defendant would be better off going to trial and possibly being proven not guilty. According to some, plea bargains result in longer terms than those imposed after a trial based on the evidence and are damaging to the criminal justice system.
Frequently Asked Questions about Plea Bargains
Does accepting a plea bargain mean you are guilty?
Put simply, yes. A plea bargain means the accused is pleading guilty or not contesting the charges. In most jurisdictions, a “no contest” plea results in a judicial finding of guilt. Defendants therefore need to consider that aspect of a plea bargain carefully.
Should you accept a plea bargain if you are innocent?
An innocent defendant must ponder seriously before accepting a plea bargain. A criminal conviction — even one that does not carry a jail sentence — can create lasting problems. The consequences of a criminal conviction might include:
- Suspension of a driver’s license
- Difficulty obtaining future employment
- Exclusion from public housing
- Inability to own a firearm
- Inability to get security clearance
- Inability to qualify for certain professional licensure
- An obligation to pay fines and court costs
Also, should new criminal charges ever arise, the prior conviction could be used to enhance those new charges. This is especially problematic in states with three-strike laws.
For these many reasons, one should consult with a criminal defense lawyer who can analyze the unique circumstances of the case and help decide what is best.
Are there special plea bargains for first-time offenders?
When a defendant has little or no criminal history, they might be able to take advantage of special programs offered by their local courts or prosecutors. Usually, these programs are not available for serious crimes. They are designed to help people accused of misdemeanors avoid getting a criminal record.
These programs, called deferred adjudication or pretrial diversion, require an up-front admission of guilt followed by the completion of a program. This might include court-mandated classes, substance abuse treatment, or community service. The defendant will return to court on a specified date to prove that all the program’s requirements have been met. If they do so, their plea can be withdrawn and their charges are dismissed, leaving them with no conviction on their record.
These programs invariably require the defendant to steer clear of any new crimes during this time period. The court is essentially requiring proof of legal behavior to erase the record of prior illegal behavior.
These programs are not without drawbacks. The defendant will often have to pay court costs and other associated expenses, like the cost of courses or counseling.
These programs are usually limited to first-time offenders only, but sometimes they can be repeated, depending on the local rules.