A Missouri federal court judge was prevented from sentencing a defendant recently after he told the defendant that the federal judicial system “sucks” and he would probably receive a lighter sentence if his case went to trial than he would through a guilty plea. Based on the judge’s statement, the defendant opted for a trial and received a longer sentence for pleading guilty to possession of a firearm as he received no points off his sentence for admitting responsibility for the crime.
An appeals court vacated the judge’s sentencing of 92 months in prison, finding that the government had offered the defendant a sentence of 70 to 87 months in prison in exchange for the guilty plea and the defendant likely would have accepted that offer if the judge had not made the statements that he made. The judge had noted that if the defendant pleaded guilty, he would go before a less lenient judge. The appeals court noted in its decision that, “Commenting on the sentencing practices of another judge and making disparaging remarks about the federal system harms the ‘public reputation of judicial proceedings.’ Furthermore, taking the court’s advice exposed Harrison to a higher sentencing range, which raises serious questions about ‘fairness.’ Indeed, the government does not contend otherwise.”
How a Plea Deal Is Supposed to Work
What is a plea deal, and how is it supposed to work? According to the American Bar Association, a plea deal is a powerful tool used to resolve most criminal cases. Either the prosecution or the defense can begin plea negotiations, but both sides have to agree to the provisions of the deal in order for it to be accepted. While a plea bargain is generally a private process between the prosecution and defense, many victims’ rights organizations have held that the victim of the crime that the defendant has been accused of committing should have the right to be involved in this negotiation process.
The factors that generally weigh into your attorney’s ability to obtain a plea agreement on your behalf include:
- The seriousness of the crime you are accused of committing.
- The strength of the evidence the prosecution has against you.
- The likelihood of the prosecution garnering a guilty verdict at trial.
It is worth noting that even if a plea bargain is reached between the prosecution and the defendant, the judge is not required to accept the terms of the bargain. The prosecution can only recommend the details of the plea agreement but is not responsible for enforcing it.
Types of Plea Deals
Plea deals usually serve one of two purposes:
- The defendant agrees to plead guilty to a single charge of multiple charges against him or her or agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge that produces shorter sentencing and/or lower fines.
- The defendant agrees to plead guilty to the crime that is charged if the prosecution agrees to lenient sentencing.
The Benefits of a Plea Deal
In addition to relieving some of the case burden from courts across the U.S., the ability to negotiate a plea deal provides benefits to both the prosecution and the defense. Some of these benefits include:
- Defendants who are likely to be convicted of a crime can bargain for a reduced sentence or lighter fines by showing a willingness to accept responsibility for the crime.
- The prosecution, which is taxpayer-funded, can reduce the amount of time and resources it uses on expensive litigation.
- Both sides can achieve a desired goal without either side being subjected to the uncertainty of trial.
A plea deal is just one of several tools that your criminal defense attorney can use to help you avoid the loss of your freedom, your reputation, and the impact to your finances that can occur if you are convicted of a crime.