In a criminal case, a plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecution and the defense where the prosecution offers to drop or reduce charges. The prosecution may recommend a certain sentence to the judge in exchange for a plea of guilty or no contest from the defendant.

Who Decides to Accept the Plea Bargain?

The prosecutor is who offers the defendant a plea bargain. It is up to the defendant whether to accept the plea bargain or reject the plea bargain and send the case to trial.

Once a defendant rejects a plea bargain, the defendant cannot retract the previous plea offered, even if the defendant gets a harsher penalty. The defendant must accept the plea bargain knowingly and voluntarily. Before accepting the defendant’s plea bargain, the judge must ensure that the defendant knows their rights to trial and the consequences of waiving that right.

When Can You Enter into a Plea Bargain?

Typically, you can enter into a plea bargain any time from the moment you are arrested to the moment before a verdict is read. However, some states have laws that regulate when and how you can enter a plea bargain. These laws vary from state to state.

What Are the Benefits of a Plea Bargain?

Some of the advantages of plea bargaining include:

  • Having a less serious offense on your criminal record
  • Receiving a less severe sentence than you might receive in trial
  • Resolving the matter quickly
  • Avoiding a messy trial that could potentially harm your reputation

What Happens If the Prosecution Goes Back on the Plea Bargain?

If the prosecutor breaks the plea bargain, you may be able to get the judge to set your plea aside. You may be able to get a court order requiring the prosecutor to respect the plea bargain. Judges also allow a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea in limited circumstances. These circumstances may include when the defendant did not voluntarily or knowingly accept the plea agreement or waived their rights to trial due to a clerical or trial error.

In some cases, a guilty plea may be withdrawn if the defendant was deprived of a constitutional right, such as the effective assistance of counsel.

What Role Do Judges Play in Plea Bargains?

In some jurisdictions, prosecutors and defendants can work together with judges to determine the defendant’s sentence if the defendant accepts a plea bargain. However, in most jurisdictions, the judge’s role in plea bargaining is limited.

Federal judges retain final authority over sentencing decisions. They are not bound by prosecutors’ recommendations, even if the recommendations are part of a plea bargain. Federal judges may not be directly involved in plea bargain negotiations.

What Are the Advantages of Plea Bargains?

Plea bargains have been defended as voluntary exchanges that benefit both parties. Defendants retain their procedural and substantive rights. By pleading guilty, defendants waive their right to trial and right to appeal a guilty verdict in exchange for a commitment from the prosecutor.

For example, a defendant may plead guilty in exchange for a reduced charge or a more favorable sentence. For defendants who believe that conviction is almost certain, a plea bargain may be more useful than the unlikely chance of being acquitted—the prosecutor benefits by securing a conviction without committing time and resources to prepare for a trial. Plea bargaining also helps to preserve money and resources for the court. Victims and witnesses do not have to testify at trial, which can be traumatic in some cases.

What Are the Consequences for the Innocently Accused?

The prisoner’s dilemma is one reason why plea bargaining is forbidden in many countries. The prisoner’s dilemma scenario applies in many plea bargaining cases. It may be in a suspect’s best interest to confess and testify against another suspect, regardless of whether the accused is innocent or not. One innocent person may have no incentive to confess, while a guilty person may have a solid motivation to confess and give false testimony against the innocent.

Innocent defendants are consistently more likely than guilty defendants to reject favorable plea bargains, even when it is disadvantageous to do so because of perceived unfairness. Innocent people may end up worse off than their guilty counterparts due to the risk of harsher sentences at trial for those who contest charges. This “trial penalty” seeks to gather guilty pleas by guilty defendants but may disproportionately collect and penalize innocent people who reject plea bargains that their guilty counterparts would accept.

How Can Goals and Incentives be Misaligned During Plea Bargaining?

Although the prosecutor represents the state and the defense attorney represents the defendant, the goals of the two may not align with their clients. Prosecutors and defense attorneys may seek to maintain good relationships with each other, creating a potential conflict of interest for the parties they represent.

A defense attorney may receive a flat fee for representing a client and may not receive additional money for taking a case to trial, creating an incentive for the defense attorney to settle a case early to increase profits or avoid financial losses.

Prosecutors may try to maintain high conviction rates or avoid losing high-profile trials. Prosecutors may also file charges or offer plea deals that cause innocent defendants to consider or accept a plea bargain.

Controversy Surrounding Plea Bargains

Plea bargains allow the criminal justice system to conserve resources and be more timely. However, plea bargains may be controversial. Some legal commentators oppose plea bargains because they feel that plea bargains allow defendants to avoid responsibility for the crimes they have committed. Some argue that plea bargains are too coercive and undermine a defendant’s constitutional right.

Plea bargaining requires a defendant to waive three rights protected by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments:

  • The right to a jury trial
  • The right against self-incrimination
  • The right to confront witnesses

The Supreme Court has ruled in numerous cases that plea bargaining is constitutional. However, the Supreme Court has held that defendants’ guilty pleas must be voluntary, and a defendant may only plead guilty if they are aware of the consequences of doing so.

How is a Plea Bargain Violated?

Courts treat plea bargains like contracts between prosecutors and defendants. A defendant who breaks a plea bargain essentially breaches a contract. When a defendant breaks a plea bargain, the prosecutor is no longer bound by their obligation in the plea deal.

If a prosecutor breaks a plea bargain, defendants may seek relief from a judge. A judge might let the defendant withdraw their guilty plea, force the prosecutor to follow the guilty bargain, or apply another remedy.

What’s a No Contest Plea?

Usually, cases are settled through a guilty plea, and the defendant accepts the plea agreement. The defendant will agree to no contest (or nolo contendere) pleas in many cases. These have the same consequences as a guilty plea.

However, the defendant is not admitting to guilt, primarily because the admission of guilt or liability would then not be used against the defendant later in a civil case.

Seeking Legal Help

If you need assistance with your criminal law issue, you should consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Your lawyer can help you develop the best defenses for your case and represent you through the plea bargain process.