It’s no secret that a significant number of criminal cases are resolved through plea deals rather than going to trial.
In fact, statistics show that the majority of criminal cases (about 98% in the federal system) end in plea bargains. The American Bar Association’s Plea Bargain Task Force has even written that “Trials have become rare legal artifacts in most U.S. jurisdictions, and even nonexistent in others.”
This means that the odds are high that you’ll eventually have to decide whether to consider a plea deal or take your case to trial. Before you decide, here are a few things to think about:
Not all plea deals are the same
Plea deals come in various forms, each with unique implications for your future. Typically, a plea can involve:
- Charge bargaining: This involves pleading guilty to a lesser charge (like manslaughter instead of murder) or fewer charges (like one count of drug trafficking instead of 10) than what was originally filed.
- Sentence bargaining: In this scenario, you plead guilty to the original charge or charges, but the prosecution agrees to a sentencing recommendation that is lighter than what you would likely receive at trial.
- Fact bargaining: This involves agreeing to (“stipulating”) a set of facts relevant to the case that can make it easier for the prosecution to secure a conviction in exchange for a lighter sentence.
For defendants, the advantages of a plea bargain can be clear. Once you take a plea deal, all or most of the uncertainty you face with the legal system ends. In some cases, where a defendant has been held in jail pending the resolution of their trial because they cannot afford bail, a plea deal may even result in their near-immediate release. For others, the main advantage of a plea deal is that it allows the judicial process to resolve, ending a lot of financial and emotional stress for their loved ones.
But plea deals wouldn’t be offered if they didn’t also serve the state’s goals – and critics say that, on the balance, plea deals tend to be better for the prosecution than they are for the defense.
Prosecutors can use plea deals to their advantage
It’s been said more than once that plea deals prize efficiency over fairness – or justice. Plea deals may be offered because they help relieve an overburdened court system. Occasionally, they’re offered out of a sense of fairness to the accused when there are mitigating circumstances that help explain their actions in a sympathetic light.
Often, however, plea bargains are offered because the prosecution knows that their case is weak and they may lose at trial – but every plea agreement goes down as a “win” for their records. If a prosecutor is politically ambitious and wants to be thought of as tough on crime, plea agreements can help them achieve a remarkable record of success.
As a result, defendants can be pressured to accept plea deals, even if they are innocent, out of fear of what will happen if they refuse. Prosecutors may pile on additional charges and judges have been known to hand out heavier sentences to defendants who assert their rights and end up convicted at trials.
All of this means one thing: You have a lot you have to think about, and you don’t want to make this decision alone. Experienced legal guidance can help you understand the realities of your situation, the charges against you, the potential consequences and the pros and cons of any particular deal you may be offered.