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What is a Plea Bargain?

A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecution and the defense whereby a person accused of a criminal offense may plead guilty to a criminal charge in exchange for a more favorable settlement. Often times, suspects either face several criminal charges or a severe criminal charge with impending severe consequences. As a way for the prosecution to secure a conviction, they often offer a defendant a plea bargain. This not only ensures a guilty verdict on at least one charge a suspect may face, but allows the prosecution to speedily process a case. This saves valuable time and money and allows a prosecutor to take on a heavier caseload.

A favorable settlement for most suspects often includes one of the following:

  • a shorter prison term,
  • lower fines,
  • lesser charges, and/or
  • dropped charges.

While plea bargains allow cases to move quickly through the court system and seem to be advantageous to all parties involved, their use in the legal system is highly contentious. One reason this is a controversial issue is because it allows criminals to face lesser charges and lesser penalties for severe crimes. In this way, justice is not really served to a victim. Plea bargains are also controversial because many say that they reduce the U.S. justice system to the negotiation skills of an individual’s attorney and do not allow due process to determine true justice.

Another way plea bargains are controversial is that they ask a suspect to give up several of his or her rights—namely, the right to not incriminate yourself, the right to a jury trial and the right to confront and cross-examine your accuser(s). This is a concern because it is often uncertain if suspects know the rights they are waiving and if they are doing so voluntarily.

For example, a suspect that is innocent of a criminal charge may choose to plead guilty to receive a lighter sentence if they are lead to believe they do not have enough evidence to support their innocence. When this happens, it is a gross misuse of the criminal justice system that causes innocent people to pay criminal penalties and secure a criminal record that will follow them for the rest of their lives (see How Will Pleading Guilty to a Felony affect Your Life).

Despite the controversy over plea bargains, they are widely used in the U.S. legal system. In fact, 95% of the felony convictions in the U.S. are from guilty pleas. That means only 5% of felony cases actually go to trial. While this helps alleviate a bogged down court system and makes the legal process more efficient, it often is not in the best interest of true justice.

Plea bargaining is not available in all circumstances and prosecutors must adhere to strict guidelines that are specific to each state when bargaining for a plea agreement. Despite this, extreme caution should be taken when you are offered a plea bargain. It is very important that you consult an experienced criminal defense attorney to make sure that you understand the potential consequences of accepting or rejecting a plea bargain. Making a plea bargain is a binding agreement and you may not rescind your guilty plea at a later date.

If you are planning on pleading guilty to a crime, it is important that you not only hire an attorney with criminal defense experience, but an attorney with strong negotiating skills who has experience negotiating plea agreements (see How to Hire a Criminal Defense Attorney).

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