Plea Bargains: The Pros and Cons

A plea bargain is used to avoid a lengthy criminal trial. The prosecutor and criminal defense attorney work together. The defendant’s case isn’t litigated before a jury.

There are many reasons why criminal defendants consider plea bargains. Plea bargains have become more important to defendants in recent years. Some defendants don’t want to risk the uncertainty of going to trial because his or her fate is then in the jury’s hands. If convicted, the defendant’s sentencing is in the hands of the trial judge.

A plea bargain is a type of compromise with the prosecutor. Of course, the quality of the plea bargain often reflects your criminal defense lawyer’s efforts in cutting the deal. In this post, we discuss the pros and cons of plea bargains in greater detail.

Plea Bargain Advantages

A successfully negotiated plea bargain will:

1. Clear up the uncertainty in your case. Some defendants want to remove the emotional pressure associated with going to trial:

  • However, the defendant may have less leverage after an indictment and greater leverage closer to the trial date.
  • Although he or she may face additional risks, there are potential rewards to the strategy. You and your attorney have the opportunity to review the case evidence and investigate witnesses.
  • You also have the opportunity to file motions regarding the exclusion of evidence or impeach certain witnesses.
  • This strategy can result in a reduced plea offer. Again, the more work the criminal defense attorney puts into challenging the prosecutor’s case, the better the plea offer may be down the road.

2. Avoid publicity. Even if you’re not famous, a criminal trial can perk up the ears of others with whom you work or play in the community.

  • A criminal trial can bring added embarrassment to family members who shun the public eye.
  • A plea bargain may be a matter of public record, but it’s short-lived news when compared to a trial.
  • Your background may be probed and investigated less by prosecutors as a result. This could be an important consideration if you’re concerned about the prosecutor’s identification of other potential crimes.

3. Possibly result in fewer (or less serious) offenses on your record.

  • The decision to plead guilty (or no contest) may reduce the total charges or result in a reduction of the charge’s seriousness.
  • The possibility of receiving the maximum sentence for the offense is greatly reduced.
  • Reduction a charge from a felony to a misdemeanor can help you in the future. If you’re convicted of a felony, a future employer might choose not to hire you. You could forfeit licenses or certifications if you’re convicted of a felony charge.
  • A felony conviction may be used to discredit you in later criminal or civil proceedings.
  • A felony conviction means you can’t own a firearm.
  • A felony conviction could mean loss of your right to vote.
  • If you’re facing a “three strikes” law, it may be advantageous to reduce a felony charge.
  • If you lose the trial, you might face more serious convictions in the aftermath. This may be important if you’re convicted at some point in the future. For instance, if you’re convicted of a second DUI, you face jail time. If a first offense was bargained to a reckless driving charge, you might not face jail if a second DUI conviction occurs later on.

4. Lessen the judge and prosecutor’s case load. This fact can work in your favor. Judges and prosecutors are overburdened and, by accepting a plea bargain, they more quickly and efficiently move the defendant’s case through the criminal justice system. Your trial could take a few days, weeks, or even months to conclude.

  • Similarly, the prosecutor’s case load is heavy. He or she doesn’t have the resources of a private criminal defense attorney. Negotiating a plea bargain lightens his or her case load.
  • Negotiating a plea bargain provides a benefit to society. A lighter case schedule helps the criminal justice system to operate more effectively.

5. Result in a less socially offensive charge on your record. A plea bargain can help you to resume your place in society.

  • For instance, a prosecutor might reduce a stigmatizing rape or molestation case to assault.
  • Realize that your friends and family’s opinions of you can change if you’re convicted of a socially offensive matter.
  • You could also be at higher risk of being hurt or killed behind bars if you’re convicted of a socially stigmatizing charge.

6. Possibly get you out of jail. If you’re held in custody because you were denied bail, couldn’t afford it or weren’t released on recognizance, you might get out of jail after the judge accepts the plea bargain.

  • Depending on the specifics of the offense, you might get out on probation, with/without community service, or get out of jail altogether.
  • If you have to serve additional time, you might get out sooner than if you insist on going to trial.

7. Keep other defendants out of the case. Occasionally, a defendant accepts blame for another person or persons to end the case. This action protects others from the prosecutorial investigation.

8. Avoid hassles. Some defendants decide that a “routine” or “minor” first offense isn’t worth going to trial. For all the reasons listed here, think again. It’s always the best course to protect your record.

9. Save time. Negotiating a plea bargain will expedite the judicial process.

10. Save money on legal fees. Trials are expensive. It’s almost always less expensive in dollars and cents to negotiate a plea bargain.

11. Allow you to plead to lesser charges than those originally contained in the criminal complaint or indictment.

  • Reduced charges can result in your being moved from prison to jail. This may be perceived as a positive or negative.

12. Possibly allow you to receive coverage for crimes—without the risk of additional punishment.

  • For example, if a defendant is charged with multiple murders, his or her criminal defense attorney might negotiate a plea deal involving a single murder.
  • If a defendant faces 10 counts of burglary, a prosecutor might offer to drop his or her charges to a single count of burglary if the defendant pleads guilty. The defendant might accept the plea deal because the sentence is shorter and he or she may become parole-eligible sooner. The defendant could be found guilty of all 10 counts and face greater punishments.

13. Use experts to support the plea process.

  • Some difficult cases result in advantageous plea deals because the criminal defense lawyer engages experts to explain the defendant’s conduct.
  • For instance, an expert could be engaged to explain the reasons for the defendant’s aberrant criminal conduct and support the premise that the client doesn’t pose a continued danger to the community.

Plea Bargain Disadvantages

There are important disadvantages to plea bargaining as well:

  • Defendants are sometimes pressured into waiving the constitutional right to trial. In some cases, the defendant risks going to jail for a crime he or she didn’t commit.
  • The defendant gives up the right to a potentially vindicating “not guilty” verdict.
  • Negotiating a plea bargain might lead to poor case investigation and preparation.
  • You might be tempted to negotiate a plea deal because you believe it costs too much to mount a vigorous defense of your innocence.
  • The prosecutor’s case might be weak, thereby prompting him or her to extend a plea offer.
  • Prosecutors sometimes offer plea bargains to extend a case against the co-defendant. The prosecutor wants one of the co-defendants to testify against the other. This assures the prosecutor that he or she will get at least one conviction, even if it’s on a lesser charge.

Those who oppose plea bargaining believe it may harm the criminal justice system. Both the prosecution and criminal defense attorneys are focused on negotiating a plea bargain instead of preparing for and winning a trial.

New task force report sets guidelines for more transparent plea bargaining

A report by the Plea Bargain Task Force, convened by the Criminal Justice Section of the American Bar Association, has revealed that plea bargaining has become the predominant method for resolving criminal cases in the U.S., accounting for nearly 98% of convictions

Though plea bargaining offers benefits like efficiency and cost savings, the report emphasizes that the practice is often unjust and lacks transparency, highlighting issues such as unchecked police and government misconduct, coercive incentives, and the frequent occurrence of innocent people pleading guilty.

Because of this, the task force set forth 14 guiding principles to create a more equitable and transparent plea-bargaining process. These principles include:

  • Promoting transparency through active trials and litigation, 
  • Avoiding coercive incentives,
  • Eliminating the “trial penalty,” in which defendants often receive harsher sentences after trial than they were offered pretrial,
  • Ensuring charges are not used to induce or punish defendants, and 
  • Implementing robust procedures to ensure pleas are actually voluntary.

Additionally, the report argues against using bail or pretrial detention to impel guilty pleas and emphasizes that defendants shouldn’t be forced to waive certain essential rights.

The report acknowledges that implementing these recommendations may necessitate amending current laws, regulations or procedures and suggests that state courts could interpret their constitutions to provide greater protections during plea bargaining. Some issues could also be resolved through ethical rules applied to judges and lawyers.

Should You Consider a Plea Bargain?

Successful plea bargain negotiation requires skill. It may be important to convince the prosecutor that you want to go to trial. If the criminal defense attorney has previously won very challenging trials, the prosecutor may be more inclined to accept a favorable plea deal to avoid a trial loss.

Realize that a plea bargain brings greater possibilities that you’ll be found guilty. According to statistics, 90 percent or more of criminal convictions result from negotiated plea deals. About 10 percent of cases go to trial.

In addition, recognize that if you’ve already reached an agreement with the prosecutor, the criminal court isn’t required to accept it. The court is required to approve the agreement. The judge wants to know if you understand the terms and charges. He or she wants to know that you accept the waiver of rights.

The decision to accept a plea bargain isn’t easy. It depends on the facts of the case, your finances, and the proposed plea deal offer.

Should You Go to Trial?

A trial is your constitutional right. If you proceed with the support of an experienced criminal defense attorney, you have the chance of acquittal. If acquitted, the charge won’t appear on your criminal record.

If you plead guilty or no contest, you’ll have a criminal record—possibility for the remainder of your life. You might not have the opportunity to expunge the conviction after you serve the punishment. If the conviction is expunged, some government agencies or individuals with a court order have access to your record.

The incentives to plea bargains are somewhat complex. Negotiating a plea deal doesn’t rely on whether you’re innocent or guilty. That reality can be distasteful to many defendants. Knowing your odds of a trial victory can help you make the appropriate decision. Take your attorney’s advice about the potential outcome of your trial, but realize it’s your decision to make. An ethical criminal defense attorney can’t make the decision for you.

Contact The Law Office of Matthew D. Sharp now for an initial case evaluation at 713-868-6100.

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