Unlike what you may see on TV shows, the reality is that most criminal cases are not resolved through a dramatic trial. Most criminal convictions are the result of a plea bargain. Prosecutors and judges often prefer plea bargains because it reduces the prosecutor’s case load and clears cases off the court docket.
However, these are not good reasons for you to accept a plea agreement offered by a prosecutor. There are both benefits and drawbacks to entering into an agreement, and you need to understand them so that you make an informed decision on whether to accept one if it is offered to you.
What Is a Plea Bargain?
A plea agreement is an agreement in a criminal case between the prosecutor and the defendant—the person charged with a crime—where the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for the offense or sentence being reduced. There are three types of plea agreements:
- Charge bargaining. This is probably the most common type of plea agreement. The defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offense in exchange for a more serious charge being dismissed. For example, a person might plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter if murder charges against him are dropped.
- Sentence bargaining. In this type of agreement, the person agrees to plead guilty to the crime he is charged with committing in exchange for a lighter sentence.
- Fact bargaining. This is a much less common type of agreement, and some courts will not approve it. Basically, the accused person stipulates to the admission of certain facts in his case in exchange for other evidence not being introduced as evidence.
What Are the Pros of Entering Into a Plea Agreement?
When deciding to accept a plea agreement, it is important that you fully understand what the prosecutor is offering you and the consequences of accepting the plea. Many defendants enter into these agreements because of the benefits. Some reasons why a plea agreement may be a good choice in your case include:
- Lighter sentence or offense. If you agree to a plea bargain, the prosecutor may agree to reduce the charges—for example, reducing a felony to a misdemeanor—or your sentence, which may be reduced to probation, depending on the offense. This could benefit you not only in your current case, but also if you are charged with a crime in the future.
- Save money. While this should not be your sole reason for accepting a plea bargain, you will save money on attorney fees and other costs, such as expert witness fees, if you do not go to trial.
- Certainty of the outcome. It can be extremely stressful when charged with a crime since you do not know what the final result will be. Even if you are innocent, there is no guarantee that you would be found not guilty at trial. By accepting a plea agreement, you eliminate the uncertainties of the outcome and have a little more control over what happens to you.
- Release from jail. If you are in jail because you could not afford to pay the bond, you could be released within a few days of your agreement if you are placed on probation.
Cons of Entering Into a Plea Bargain
Like many decisions in life, there are also negative consequences to entering into a plea agreement. Some of these are:
- Innocence. If you are truly innocent of the crime you are being charged with, it can be hard to accept a plea agreement—even for a reduced sentence or charge.
- Loss of rights. When you enter into a plea bargain, you are giving up certain legal rights, such as your right to be presumed innocent unless proven guilty and your right to have your case decided by a jury.
- Criminal record. A plea agreement will require you to plead guilty to some criminal offense. This means that you will have a criminal record for the rest of your life.
- Criminal sentence. If you plead guilty, you will be sentenced for the crime that you plead guilty to. Even paying fines and probation can be a hardship for you and could result in more serious consequences if you do not follow through with what is required under your sentence.
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