What Is Plea Bargaining?
Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.
Plea bargaining is a common outcome of criminal proceedings.
While it can be tempting to accept a plea deal to avoid the stress of a full trial, it's essential to understand your options and their implications.
Plea bargaining occurs when the government suggests a plea deal to a criminal defendant. Typically, a plea deal allows the defendant to avoid the most severe sentences if they plead guilty. Another potential advantage to the defendant is that it allows them to avoid a full trial.
Plea bargaining also offers certain advantages to the government. For example, it reduces the number of cases proceeding to a full trial and frees up prosecutors and judges to work on other cases.
During plea bargaining, the defendant and prosecutors reach an agreement that increases the chance of a more lenient sentence. For example, the prosecution may agree to drop some of the charges if there are several, or reduce the severity of the charge.
The defendant must plead guilty to the charge in open court to accept a plea deal. While the government may recommend leniency, only the judge has the authority to decide the sentence.
The government may offer a plea bargain if it wants to avoid a trial. For example, prosecutors may wish to avoid having to force a victim or witness to testify. In many jurisdictions, offering plea bargains is standard practice on most cases because prosecutors don't have the time or resources to take all cases to trial. Furthermore, defendants are more likely to receive a plea bargain if they can offer assistance in other criminal cases. For example, they may be offered a plea deal for testifying in court against another defendant.
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There are three ways you can plead to a criminal charge: guilty, not guilty or no contest.
When you plead guilty to a criminal charge, you freely admit that you committed the offense in open court and submit to the judge passing sentence upon you. The case will not proceed to trial, and the judge will arrange a sentencing hearing.
Pleading not guilty means you don't accept that you committed the offense. In other words, a not guilty plea means the prosecution must prove the case against you in a criminal trial. Many people plead not guilty but then negotiate and accept a plea bargain. In these cases, the defendant's plea is changed to "guilty" when they accept the plea bargain.
Pleading no contest means neither admitting nor denying the charges against you. Instead, it is simply a request to close the case without proceeding to trial. However, the consequences of pleading no contest in terms of sentencing are the same as pleading guilty. Courts and prosecutors may not always accept a plea of no contest.
Whether you should accept a plea bargain depends on whether the deal is in your best interests. It can be hard to know whether the offer is a good deal without expert knowledge of criminal sentencing, so it's usually best to consult a criminal defense attorney to help you weigh your options.
The first factor to consider is the strength of the case against you. If your attorney believes you have a strong chance of winning at trial, it may be better to plead not guilty.
Another point for consideration is whether the proposed sentence is lenient enough to make it worth accepting the charges against you. Your attorney can bargain with the prosecution to help you achieve the best possible plea bargain if you choose to plead guilty.
Finally, it's crucial to consider the implications of being found guilty, especially if the charge against you is serious. For example, accepting a plea deal usually means waiving your right to appeal whatever sentence the judge hands down.
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