How Do Plea Deals and Plea Bargains Work? Are They Good or Bad?

The vast majority of criminal cases in the United States are resolved through plea negotiations, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In fact, well over 90 percent of all criminal cases prosecuted on both the federal and state level end in plea agreements. The ratio of plea agreements to trials is above 90 percent in the state of Texas.

A person charged with a crime needs to have a clear understanding of how the plea agreement process works in the Texas criminal justice system. In this regard, there are a number of facts and factors to bear in mind.


Overview of the Plea Bargain Process

Technically speaking, under Texas law, the defendant initiates the plea negotiation process. Because this is the manner in which plea negotiations technically commence underscores the necessity for a criminal defendant to be represented by legal counsel.

There are really three overarching bargaining areas that come into play during the plea negotiation process. In exchange for entering a plea in a criminal case, a defendant will receive one or another of these considerations:

  • Change in the underlying charge
  • Lower sentence recommendation
  • Fact bargaining

The end result of the negotiations, as far as a criminal defendant is concerned, is to place the alleged offender into a better position to face lesser sanctions in a particular case. More than anything else, a criminal defendant typically desires to face a lesser penalty at the conclusion of a criminal case.

Benefits of Plea Negotiations

There are a number of benefits associated with the plea negotiation process. One of the most significant benefits is that in the absence of the plea bargaining process, the shear volume of criminal cases prosecuted in Texas, and cross the United States, each year would cause the system to collapse. Even with only about 5 to 7 percent of criminal cases progressing to the trial stage, the judicial system in the state is swamped by cases.

Another benefit of plea bargains is that it does provide a criminal defendant, and his legal counsel, at least some greater level of control over a case. When a case ends up in a jury’s hands, on some level, all bets are off.

As a matter of course, in the vast majority of criminal cases, a criminal defendant is able to obtain a better resolution of his or her case through the plea negotiation process than would happen if a conviction were to occur.

Downside to Plea Bargaining

There is a downside to plea bargaining. Oftentimes, a criminal defendant really is not guilty of the crime for which he or she has been charged by the state of Texas or the U.S. government. In no small way because of the huge reliance on plea bargaining in the criminal justice system, prosecutors on the state and federal level engaging in a tactic that can best be called over-charging.

As the term suggests, over-charging involves a prosecuting attorney initially pursuing more serious charges against a criminal defendant, even more serious than the alleged facts of a case might actually support.

Over-charging is undertaken by the prosecutor in order to give that official room to maneuver when it comes to the plea negotiation process. Thus, in some instances, when plea bargaining occurs in Texas, and elsewhere, the net effect can be lowering charges to where they should have been lodged in the first instance.

Judges and Plea Bargaining

In Texas, and across the United States, judges have the final say when it comes to sentencing. More often than not, a judge will accept the plea recommendation made by the prosecutor and defendant in a criminal case. However, a judge does not have to adhere to that arrangement made by the parties if the court deems there exists a reason or reasons not to do so.

A criminal defendant needs to understand that even with a plea agreement in hand, a judge may take a different course when it comes to sentencing. Moreover, if a judge takes such a course, it likely will be considered well within his or her judicial discretion to do so.

More rarely, a judge can elect not to accept a plea agreement at all. This would force the parties into a trial. This type of situation rarely happens in Texas, or anywhere else in the United States for that matter.

Plea Bargaining, Admitting Guilt, Appealing Case

In the majority of cases involving plea agreements, a defendant is required to admit guilt to the crimes as part of that agreement with the state. As mentioned, there are plenty of criminal cases in which a defendant ends up pleading guilty to crimes for which arguably the facts do not necessarily support guilt. Nonetheless, many criminal defendants find it a safer course to enter into a plea in order to avoid more serious penalties during the sentencing phase of a case.

A criminal defendant also needs to understand that by entering into a plea agreement, he or she is waiving virtually all rights to appeal the case. There may be some highly limited grounds upon which to pursue an appeal of a case, but overall appealing is not possible.

Guidance from an Experienced Texas Criminal Defense Attorney

A defendant in a criminal case best protects his or her legal rights and interests when it comes to the plea bargaining process by proactively retaining the services of an experienced Texas criminal defense attorney. During an initial consultation, a lawyer will provide a defendant with a preliminary evaluation of his or her case. A defendant, in turn, has the opportunity to ask questions of a criminal defense lawyer. As a general rule, a Texas criminal defense lawyer does not charge a fee for an initial consultation between his or her self and a prospective client.

Criminal cases proceed apace. There is some truth to the adage that the court waits for no man, or woman. Therefore, a person being investigated for a crime, or charged with one, should seriously consider retaining legal representation with all deliberate speed.

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