The courts find it useful because it reduces the number of cases on the docket. Defendants generally receive the advantage of a lesser charge.
However, there are advantages and disadvantages to plea bargains that every individual arrested for criminal conduct should know before accepting one.
What Is a Plea Bargain?
A plea bargain or plea deal is an offer for you to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for something, typically a smaller fine or shorter sentence. If you accept a plea bargain, your case does not go before a jury, and you can avoid a lengthy trial. While that sounds great, there are shortcomings to accepting a plea deal.
You have a constitutional right to a trial. By accepting a plea bargain, you waive that right. The downside is that you have a chance at acquittal in a jury trial. By taking a plea bargain, you automatically plead guilty.
- Charge bargaining is the most common type — the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offense to get a more serious charge dismissed.
- Sentence bargaining is when a defendant agrees to plead guilty to a criminal charge in exchange for a lighter sentence.
- Fact bargaining is less common, and some courts do not approve it. The defendant admits to specific facts in exchange for keeping other evidence from being introduced.
The quality of the plea bargain depends on your criminal attorney’s efforts in cutting the deal. An experienced criminal attorney can help you determine the best course of action.
The Advantages of Accepting a Plea Bargain
Most plea bargains result in a lighter prison sentence. You receive a significantly shorter sentence than if a court convicts you in a jury trial. Accepting a plea deal also allows you and your attorney to review the case evidence or investigate witnesses before you go to court.
Plea bargains provide the chance of reduced charges. You accept the deal in return for a lesser charge than the original. You might receive a charge of a different class or degree. For example, you may be able to bargain a felony charge to a misdemeanor, which is less damaging to your record and future life opportunities.
A lesser charge can make you eligible for certain jobs or expunction of your criminal record.
Another advantage to accepting a plea bargain is that you don’t need to pay an attorney for the length of a trial. The case is over, so you have no jury trial, which can stretch for weeks. You also avoid the publicity of a public trial, which may embarrass your family and put your name in the news for longer than you like.
A plea bargain is still a public record, but reporters don’t hang out in the county clerk’s office for a juicy interview. If you fear other crimes will come to light, then the less probing of your background, the better.
So, a plea bargain has less social impact than a jury trial, especially if a stigma is attached to the charge. Plea bargaining a rape charge down to assault could reduce your chances of social challenges in prison.
Finally, accepting a plea bargain can keep others from an investigation. For example, you may want to shield a loved one or an associate from a police investigation or keep other information from coming to light that might be found by charging another person.
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The Disadvantages of Accepting a Plea Deal
The most severe disadvantage to accepting a plea bargain is that you might accept a conviction for a crime the prosecution could not prove in court. The prosecutor might offer the deal because they know their case won’t hold up. Maybe they can’t find credible witnesses, or the forensic evidence is unconvincing.
With a plea bargain, there is no way to plead “not guilty.” You are admitting guilt in order to take the deal, no matter what.
You may take the plea deal because you’re afraid of being found guilty of a higher charge in a jury trial and suffering the consequences of a longer sentence, a controversial charge, a high fine, or all three. You can’t go back and tell employers or others you didn’t commit a crime because the plea deal created a conviction record that says you did.
You run the risk of coercion when the prosecution offers a plea bargain, and you may feel pressured to take the deal, even if it isn’t in your best interests. Prosecutors often emphasize the maximum punishment you face for the original charge to convince you to accept a plea bargain, which can make an innocent person take a criminal charge.
It’s important to note that plea bargains are not binding on the court. Just because you accept a plea bargain doesn’t mean the judge approves. The court will ask if you understand the terms of the agreement, the charges, your waiver of rights, and the consequences of the deal.
If the court is unconvinced, you may still face a jury trial.
A harmful result of plea bargaining is that the automatic conviction goes on your criminal record. If you go to trial and win an acquittal, you never have a criminal record. Also, agreeing to a plea bargain may eliminate the chances of expunging your criminal record.
Even if you get the information expunged, some parties still have access to the information, which can be damaging to your job or shelter opportunities.
Accepting a plea deal may lead to inadequate investigation and preparation for trial. In an effort to reduce the charges, you might neglect to review the prosecution’s evidence. If your case goes to trial anyway, you won’t be prepared.
Why You Need a Criminal Attorney
Plea bargains require experience and knowledge of the law. Accepting a plea deal without involving a criminal attorney leaves you open to a criminal record and potentially false or inadequately supported charges.