What is a Plea Bargain?

A plea bargain is an agreement in which the prosecutor and defendant arrange to settle the criminal case against the defendant.  The defendant pleads guilty or no contest to the charges in exchange for some agreement from the prosecutor as to the sentencing. 

In some cases the prosecutor will agree to charge a lesser crime or dismiss some of the charges against the defendant in exchange for a guilty plea.  The vast majority of criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains.

Why Are Plea Bargains Offered?

The primary justifications for plea bargains are that:

  • Courts are overcrowded; if you didn't allow plea bargains, courts would be overwhelmed and forced to shut down.
  • Prosecutors' caseloads are also overloaded; fewer trials means that the prosecutor can more effectively prosecute the most serious cases.
  • Defendants save time and money by not having to defend themselves at trial.

These primary justifications all provide benefits to the respective players: the court, the prosecutor and the defendant, but don't inherently offer any benefit to the populace at large or take any steps towards a truly just outcome. For this - and other moral, ethical and constitutional reasons - many in the legal field have openly challenged the plea bargaining system.

In one study about areas where plea bargaining was prohibited, the author concluded that not being able to rely on plea bargaining reinforced responsibility in every level of the judicial process judges, lawyers, prosecutors and police and did not result in the court system being overwhelmed.

What Exactly is a Plea Bargain?

A plea bargain is an agreement in which the prosecutor and defendant arrange to settle the criminal case against the defendant. The defendant pleads guilty or no contest to the charges in exchange for some agreement from the prosecutor as to the sentencing.  In some cases the prosecutor will agree to charge a lesser crime or dismiss some of the charges against the defendant in exchange for a guilty plea.  The vast majority of criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains.

Many, many criminal cases are resolved through a plea bargain, often long before the case reaches trial. In a plea bargain, the defendant agrees to plead guilty, usually to a lesser charge than one for which the defendant could stand trial, in exchange for a more lenient sentence, and/or so that certain related charges are dismissed. This can be beneficial for both the government and the defendant. It can save time and resources for the government and lessen risks and exposure to the defendant.

Is Accepting a Plea Bargain a Smart Decision?

The decision to enter into (or not enter into) a plea bargain may be based on the seriousness of the alleged crime, the strength of the evidence in the case, and the prospects of a guilty verdict at trial. Plea bargains are generally encouraged by the court system, and have become something of a necessity due to overburdened criminal court calendars and overcrowded jails.

All of that said, a person charged with a crime should not feel pressured to plead guilty to a crime they are innocent of. Someone shouldn't plead guilty for financial reasons either. As a general rule, an innocent person shouldn't plead guilty to a crime or plea bargain. If you have any doubts, speak to a qualified criminal defense attorney.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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