Many criminal prosecutions in the United States are resolved outside of court by both sides coming to an agreement. This is known as negotiating a plea or plea bargaining. With a plea deal, the case is settled before a jury trial takes place. It is important not to rush into a deal, however, because those charges will go on your permanent record. The best way to decide whether or not to accept a plea bargain is to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney.
Plea Deal Basics
A plea deal is an agreement between a defendant and prosecutor in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to some or all of the charges against them. The defendant is typically agreeing to a lesser offense in exchange for a reduced sentence than the one they would face in a trial. Defendants can also plead “no contest,” which carries the same fundamental consequences as a plea deal without the official admission of guilt.
Plea deals allow prosecutors to save the time and expenses of a lengthy trial, as well as reduce the number of trials that a judge needs to oversee. For those reasons, these agreements are very common. More than 90% of convictions come from negotiated pleas, according to FindLaw, which means that less than 10% of criminal cases end up going to trial.
Types of Plea Deals
Several types of plea bargains can be offered to a defendant based on their criminal history and the severity of the current charges against them.
- Charge Bargaining is an agreement where the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a lesser charge, such as reducing a felony to a misdemeanor.
- Court Bargaining is negotiating how many charges the accused will face.
- Fact Bargaining results in a lighter prison sentence for the defendant if the prosecutor agrees to certain facts about the crime.
- Sentence Bargaining occurs when the defendant pleads guilty in return for a lighter sentence.
- Incomplete Plea Bargains, or sentencing caps, exist when the two sides cannot agree on the exact terms of the plea agreement. The defendant and prosecution must present their agreement to the judge, who determines the terms.
Pros and Cons of Plea Deals
Although they are very common, plea negotiations can be controversial because while they have many pros, their cons can be life-changing.
Pro – Time Saving
Pro – Avoid More Serious Criminal Charges
For a defendant, a plea provides the opportunity for a more lenient sentence and fewer or less serious offenses listed on their permanent record. It also trades the risk of a trial for the certainty of the agreed-upon charges.
Con – Lost Opportunity
A significant drawback of plea bargaining is a defendant eliminating the possibility of a “not guilty” verdict at trial. Accepting the deal waives any potential objections to evidence that could influence a jury.
Con – Surrender the Right to Appeal the Conviction
Accepting a plea deal also surrenders the defendant’s right to appeal the conviction. An appeal is a request for a higher court to review and change the decision made by a lower court.
Discuss a Plea Deal with an Attorney
You should never rush into a plea deal, especially if you are confused about what it means. If you or someone you know is uncertain about how to proceed with their criminal case, the experienced, local criminal defense attorneys at Grabb & Durando can help.