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Criminal Law Blog

FAQs About Plea Bargaining

March 12, 2021

You may be surprised to know that about 90% of criminal cases never make it to trial but are actually decided by plea bargaining. Plea bargaining is an important tool your defense attorney can use to help you gain more control over the outcome of your case. Your defense attorney can help you decide when to take a plea bargain and when to take your case to trial. Although most people are familiar with plea bargaining from television shows and movies, the real thing is a little different. It’s important to understand the pros and cons of a plea bargain fully before entering into one. These FAQs will help you understand more about the process. 

What exactly is a plea bargain?

In a plea bargain, a person charged with a criminal offense will agree to plead guilty or no contest in exchange for reduced charges or a reduced sentence. There are some advantages of plea bargaining. Both sides get the benefit of knowing the outcome of a case without having to rely on a potentially unpredictable jury trial. Defendants usually get a much better outcome than if they were found guilty by a jury, at which point sentencing minimums could lead to significant periods of incarceration. 

There are people who are against plea bargaining, however. Some people believe that plea bargaining deprives victims of crimes of the sense of justice that can come from a trial, while others believe some defendants are pushed into taking a plea when they may have benefited from having a jury hear their case. 

What are the types of plea bargains?

There are two main categories of plea bargains: charge bargains and sentence bargains. With charge bargains, the prosecution agrees to amend the charges to a lower degree charge or to drop some of the charges in exchange for the defendant pleading guilty to the lesser charges. Sentence bargaining occurs when the prosecution recommends a lighter than normal sentence for the defendant, if the defendant pleads guilty to the charges. 

There are some other forms of plea bargaining that involve things like agreeing to omit certain facts from a case that would trigger a higher sentence, but most types of pleas revolve around some sort of charge or sentence arrangements. 

When does plea bargaining happen?

Although each state has its own laws regarding plea bargaining, it can usually happen at virtually any stage of a criminal case. Some plea bargaining begins before charges are even formally filed, while in other instances, the sides may reach a plea while the jury is deliberating. Plea bargaining can even happen after a conviction during an appeal case. 

Plea bargains are frequently used to resolve cases that have gone to trial and ended in a hung jury. Instead of dealing with the costs and stresses of a new trial, the sides may come to a plea agreement. 

What happens to a defendant’s criminal record after a plea?

Although a plea bargain may result in lesser charges and shorter sentences, defendants still end up with a criminal conviction on their record. Unless the plea agreement itself specifies terms under which the defendant’s conviction will be sealed, it will appear on his or her criminal record as though it was a conviction at trial. 

This is an important consideration, since a criminal conviction can impact future employment opportunities, travel opportunities, the right to vote, and much more. This is one of the reasons it’s essential to work closely with a criminal defense lawyer if you are considering a plea bargain. 

Do judges have to accept a plea bargain?

Negotiating a plea deal between the prosecution and defense is just one step of securing a plea bargain. The judge also has to accept the deal. When doing so, he or she will consider factors like the facts of the case, the preferences of the victims, and whether the plea protects the safety and rights of the general public. 

The judge can decide to accept parts of the plea and reject others, reject the plea outright, or defer a decision until a later part of the trail process. 

Who should consider a plea bargain?

There is no rule book for deciding whether or not to take a plea bargain. Every case is different, and the details of your charges, the facts of the case, and your previous involvements with the law all figure into the decision-making process. The only way to know for sure if a plea bargain is right for you is to consult with your criminal defense attorney. 

Janet Altschuler understands the criminal justice system from both sides of the aisle, and she is committed to helping people facing criminal charges fight for their rights and get the best possible outcomes. Schedule a meeting with our criminal defense attorney in Tucson by calling (520) 247-1789.

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