The vast majority of criminal cases are resolved through a plea bargain well before trial. In a plea bargain, the defendant agrees to plead guilty, usually to a lesser charge than the one for which they would stand trial. There are a number of reasons why a defendant may do this.
Plea Bargain Basics
Most criminal defendants will eventually be found guilty. A plea bargain is an agreement in a criminal case between the prosecutor and the accused. It typically involves the defendant pleading guilty to a lesser offense in exchange for a reduced sentence that has been agreed upon in advance.
Plea agreements swiftly resolve cases where there is little disagreement or where the evidence of guilt is overwhelming. Plea bargains increase efficiency for the courts and reduce expense and time for the defendant. Critics of plea bargaining complain that this efficiency comes at the expense of transparency and justice.
The Necessity of Plea Bargaining
The full criminal trial process can take months or even years to conclude. Realistically, the criminal justice system would grind to a halt if every criminal defendant demanded a full jury trial, including pre-trial motion hearings and post-conviction motions and appeals. There simply are not enough judges, clerks, court security, and other personnel to accommodate the full trial process for every crime committed. Prosecutors and judges want to see a quick and efficient resolution to cases whenever possible.
Plea Bargain Pros and Cons
Criminal defendants accept plea bargains in order to:
- Avoid more serious charges
- Serve a lighter sentence
- Avoid the hassle and uncertainty of a trial
Plea bargains provide some sense of security because they allow defendants to negotiate the terms of sentencing and avoid the most severe punishments.
Defendants also benefit from the time savings of plea bargaining, especially for less serious charges. Often, they face restrictions from bail orders while a case is pending. Repeated court appearances require time away from work and travel if the court is not local. The stress of the unresolved charges can wear a person down. A guilty plea can let them move on with their life.
The most significant drawback of a plea deal is the lost opportunity. A defendant who takes a plea bargain waives many potential objections to evidence that could have influenced a jury trial. A plea bargain eliminates the possibility of a “not guilty” verdict.
Another drawback for defendants is that almost every plea bargain will require the defendant to enter a plea of “guilty” or “no contest” to criminal charges, which creates or adds to a permanent criminal record.
A defendant who accepts a plea agreement typically surrenders the right to appeal the conviction. Appeals of a plea bargain are much narrower than appeals of guilty verdicts at trial. They are often limited to instances of prosecutorial misconduct or other rare defects in the plea process.
For these reasons, it is very important to consult with a criminal defense attorney before entering a plea agreement. A skilled defense lawyer can evaluate the merits of a case and the likely outcomes of a trial against the plea offered by the prosecution. An attorney familiar with the jurisdiction and area of law can assess whether a plea offer is fair. They may even negotiate a better outcome for the defendant.
Making a Decision on a Plea Bargain
The defendant will not be able to enter the plea until and unless the judge decides that the terms are acceptable. There are several different types of actions that a judge can take in these situations. They can accept the plea agreement as it is, or they can reject it outright. If a judge rejects a plea agreement, they usually must state a justification on the record.
Judges Retain Sentencing Discretion
Judges do not have control over which charges are brought against a defendant but may have discretion in sentencing, even when a plea bargain is involved. Thus, a judge can accept a plea bargain while simultaneously imposing a different sentence than the sentence to which the defendant and the prosecutor agreed. In most circumstances, a defendant would then be allowed to withdraw their guilty plea.
In other cases, a judge may accept only certain terms of the agreement, while rejecting other terms, such as the proposed sentence. This is known as a partially negotiated plea. If the judge is sympathetic to the defendant’s case or believes that they have a strong defense, they may suggest that the defendant enter their plea without negotiating an agreement. This may result in a lighter sentence than the sentence outlined in the agreement. Or the judge may feel that they do not have enough information to make a decision. They can postpone the decision until after they review the presentence report.
Some states impose limits on these options. For example, the judge may need to accept or reject the agreement in its entirety. Other states do not require the judge to follow the sentencing recommendation provided in the agreement, even if they otherwise accept the deal. This may give the defendant the right to withdraw the plea and restart the case.
What Happens Next
A judge generally cannot wipe out a plea agreement after they have accepted it and entered the conviction. There may be an exception if the agreement requires the defendant to meet certain future conditions. The court will retain jurisdiction until the defendant meets the conditions, and the judge may be able to wipe out the agreement if the defendant does not meet them within the required time. A common example is when a defendant does not complete community service or required courses, such as an anger management class in a domestic violence case or an alcohol abuse class in a DUI case. This means that the judge could impose a new sentence, possibly involving jail time.