Plea Bargains in Criminal Cases

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The court system is overloaded with cases, jails are overcrowded, and public defender resources are scarce.  With all these well-known factors, prosecutors frequently work to resolve a case in the most cost-efficient manner, which is plea-bargaining.  Essentially, a defendant pleads no contest or guilty to a given charge, and in turn, receives a reduced sentence, has certain charges dropped, or enters an alternative sentencing period instead of incarceration. Depending on the jurisdiction, defendants, if offered by the prosecution, are free to accept plea agreements during any time following arrest. By most estimates, nearly ninety percent of criminal cases are resolved via plea-bargaining.

The Benefits and Detriments of Plea Bargaining

The pros and cons of plea bargaining are entirely relative to your individual criminal case.  Depending on the charges you face, your ability to negotiate a favorable plea bargain with the prosecutor’s office is varied.  For example, the prosecutor’s office may offer a suspended sentence plea agreement that will eventually expunge the charge from your record.  For charges that are more serious though, the plea bargain offers are typically less generous.  If a defendant agrees to a plea agreement, they are agreeing to plead guilty or no contest to a crime, which will establish a criminal record.  Defendants must also serve out the sentences arranged during a plea agreement, which will widely vary depending on the charges faced.   Some of the more common incentives for a defendant to accept plea bargain agreements, include:

  • Reduction of number of charges faced
  • Reduction of the severity of the charges faced
  • Reduction of overall sentence
  • Ability to end incarceration with time already served
  • Reducing potentially stigmatizing offenses from one’s record, such as sex offenses
  • Avoiding the drawn out process of criminal trial, including the potential publicity, hassles, and involving others in a given case

How a Plea Bargain Works

In order to obtain a certain, cost-effective conviction, judges and prosecutors will turn to plea-bargaining in virtually every case.  Essentially, a defense attorney and a prosecutor will confer regarding a specific case, which can take minutes or go on for several weeks, and attempt to establish a plea bargain acceptable to both sides.  Attorneys can arrange plea bargains without a client’s consent, however, only the defendant can accept the agreement.  Prosecutors can approve a plea agreement, however, it is up to the judge to approve the terms of the agreement and enforce a sentence.

Judges can reject plea agreements according to their own reasoning; however, prosecutors typically can arrange deals at their discretion and feel confident they will be confirmed by a judge.  Judges also question defendants at length to ensure the defendant has made the plea agreement knowingly and intelligently.  At this point, if all sides agree to the plea agreement, the judge will have a defendant plead in open court to the charges, which establishes a court record.  From there, a judge will immediately accept the plea and issue the agreed upon sentence.

How to Negotiate Plea Bargains

Negotiating plea bargains is an extremely relative strategy that most attorneys will initially attempt on behalf of their clients.  Over time, many legal tricks of the trade have been invented that will affect a defendant’s ability to negotiate a favorable plea bargain, especially without the assistance of an attorney.  For starters, prosecutors typically over-charge defendants, in order to set the bar high prior to entering into plea negotiations.  In essence, the equation for estimating an accurate plea agreement takes into account the charges in question, the seriousness of these charges, the past criminal history of a defendant, and the relative strength of the prosecutor’s case.  Additionally, to deal with a large influx of similar cases, prosecutor’s offices may offer defendants a standard deal, which is offered to all defendants meeting certain criteria.  For example, underage drinking offenses in college areas are often dealt with via a favorable standard deal, instead of going to trial over dozens of underage drinking cases every week.   

To arrange a plea deal outside of the standard deal, defendants and their legal counsel are tasked with a difficult challenge with no pre-determined outcome.  Having a local defense attorney is crucial at these junctures, which rely on informal bargaining and knowledge about a specific jurisdiction’s court system.  In all cases, negotiation tactics used in plea arrangements are similar to any other negotiation, which will probably require finesse, skill, and most likely, a fair amount of luck to obtain a favorable deal.


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