25 Sep 23

What is a plea bargain?

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Last Updated on: 28th September 2023, 08:48 pm


What is a Plea Bargain?

A plea bargain is when a defendant in a criminal case makes a deal with the prosecutor to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a more lenient sentence. It’s a very common way for criminal cases to end in the U.S. – way more common than going to trial!

Plea bargains can be confusing ’cause there’s a lot of different types. Let’s break it down step-by-step so you really understand how they work.

Why Do Plea Bargains Happen?

There’s a few big reasons why plea bargains are so common:

  • Trials are expensive and take a long time. Plea bargains save money and move cases along faster.
  • Prosecutors often have really strong evidence against defendants. It can be hard to win at trial, so defendants take a plea deal instead.
  • Defendants can get a lighter sentence with a plea bargain compared to if they lost at trial.

Makes sense right? The prosecutor gets a guaranteed win without a trial, and the defendant gets a reduced punishment. It’s like a win-win, kinda.

Types of Plea Bargains

There’s all kinds of different plea deals that get made. Here’s some of the main ones:

Charge Bargaining

This is when the prosecutor agrees to drop some of the charges against the defendant, or reduce the charges to less serious ones. For example, reducing a felony robbery charge down to a misdemeanor theft charge.

Sentence Bargaining

Here the charges stay the same, but the prosecutor agrees to recommend a lighter sentence to the judge, or to not oppose a defense request for a light sentence.

Fact Bargaining

In this type of plea bargain, the prosecutor agrees to accept a defendant’s guilty plea to the original charges, but agrees to accept a different version of the facts than what really happened. This allows the defendant to plead guilty without admitting all the bad stuff they did.

How Plea Bargains Work

Ok, so when exactly do plea bargains happen? What’s the process? Here’s a quick step-by-step:

  1. Prosecutor makes an offer – This usually happens before the trial starts. The prosecutor will offer a deal like “Plead guilty to a lesser charge and I’ll recommend no jail time.”
  2. Defendant considers the offer – The defendant will think it over with their lawyer. Is the deal better than what they’d get if they lost at trial?
  3. Defendant accepts or rejects – If they accept, it’s time to go before the judge. If they reject, no deal and it’s off to trial!
  4. Plea hearing – At the hearing, the defendant officially pleads guilty under oath. The judge makes sure the plea is voluntary.
  5. Sentencing – Defendant is sentenced based on the plea deal. Judge isn’t required to follow sentencing recommendations.

Seems easy right? Just make a deal and move to sentencing! But there’s a lot more to consider…

Pros of Plea Bargains

We talked already about some big pros of plea bargains, like saving time and money compared to a trial. But there’s other advantages too:

  • Defendants get a lighter sentence – Big one here! Pleading guilty means less jail time.
  • Avoids trial uncertainties – No risk of losing at trial and getting max sentence.
  • Gives victims closure – Victims often want to avoid a lengthy trial.
  • Efficient justice – Cases get resolved faster compared to backlogged courts.

Many folks see plea bargains as an imperfect but practical necessity in an overburdened justice system. But others argue they come with major downsides…

Cons of Plea Bargains

Critics point out some big potential problems with plea bargaining:

  • Risk of innocent people pleading guilty – Defendants may accept a deal to avoid trial even if they’re innocent.
  • Gives prosecutors too much power – Prosecutors can scare defendants into accepting bad deals.
  • No trial means no public scrutiny – Justice should happen in open court.
  • Disparities in who gets deals – White collar criminals seem to get better plea deals.

These are all good points. But our justice system kinda relies on plea bargains at this point. So unless we wanna double the number of judges and courts, they’re probably here to stay.

Alternatives to Plea Bargains

Some countries don’t do plea bargaining at all. But in the U.S., there’s just a few alternatives that aim to fix some of the problems with plea deals:

Open File Discovery

This requires prosecutors to share all evidence with the defense before a plea deal. It helps balance power between the prosecution and defense.

Sentencing Guidelines

Guidelines make sentences more consistent and limit how much prosecutors can reduce sentences with plea deals.

Innocence Commissions

These independent agencies investigate claims of wrongful convictions, including from faulty plea bargains.

Tweaks like these can help, but plea bargaining is deeply embedded in our criminal justice system at this point. It would take major reforms to really change that.

The Bottom Line

Plea bargains allow defendants to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence. They help move cases through the crowded justice system quickly. But critics argue they give too much power to prosecutors and risk innocent people pleading guilty.

Overall, plea bargains are deeply flawed but also deeply entrenched in our system. Like a lot of stuff in law, there’s strong arguments on both sides!