Plea Bargain / Plea Agreements

There is a good chance that if you are facing criminal charges your case will end in a plea bargain. Some sources state that well over 90% of cases in the country result in one. Plea agreements are a necessary and important part of the criminal court process.

But if it is you who are charged with a crime, you don’t care about the court backlog, or statistics. You only care about the best and fairest outcome for your case. A complete understanding of plea bargains is crucial in really understanding your legal defense options.

What Are Plea Bargains and How do They Work?

Like most legal terms, the exact definition of a plea bargain can differ from state to state and between jurisdictions. Generally, however, a plea agreement can be defined as:

“A mutual agreement between the prosecution and the accused that in some way alters the original charge or potential sentence against the accused in exchange for a guilty plea or admittance of responsibility for some of the aspects of the charges.”

Why Do Plea Bargains Happen?

There are many reasons for plea agreements. One of the main reasons they have become so prominent is simply because the court systems are overcrowded and underfunded. Cases resolved with a plea agreement speed through the system, costing less time and money.

In addition, depending on the circumstances of each person case, a plea agreement may be offered when the prosecution doesn’t think they could win the case at trial or vice versa, when the defense believes a trial could end badly for the accused.

Occasionally, a plea agreement is reached after a hung jury, when both parties simply don’t want to go through another trial.

When Do Plea Bargains Happen?

Generally a plea agreement can occur anytime before the conclusion of a trial. This means from the time you are charged and throughout the entire criminal case process, there are endless opportunities for plea bargaining to happen. Usually they happen fairly early, but occasionally a deal isn’t agreed upon until well into the court process, after a trial date is set, or even on the day of a jury trial.

In some states, there are specific situations and times when a plea agreement can be entered. But, in most there are no hard or fast rules about when they can happen.

Will the Plea Bargain Get Me Out of Doing jail Time?

Each plea agreement is different. In some situations the charge is lessened to something less serious. In others, the prosecution agrees to recommend a more lenient sentence to the judge. This means there is always the chance that a plea agreement could end with probation in lieu of jail time.

Example: Jack is charged with possession with intent to sell a half pound of marijuana. This charge is considered a felony in his state and carries a potential 3 year prison sentence. Because this is his first offense the prosecutor offers him a deal, reducing the charge to possession of marijuana with a 180 jail sentence. She also states that she will recommend that the sentence be suspended in exchange for 2 years of probation.

In this case Jack will likely not have to serve any jail time on a charge that may have cost him years in a state prison.

In general, a plea agreement is usually a good deal if it takes the risk of jail time off the table, if you were to end up being convicted at trial.

Does the plea deal have to be approved by the judge?

Yes, in a way it does. It is a judge’s responsibility to make sure the plea agreement is legal and done according to the laws of your state and the United States Constitution. He does this by ensuring that the agreement involves:

  1. Mutual agreement (no one can make you enter a plea agreement),
  2. Evidence to support the charges you are agreeing to plead guilty to, and
  3. Your acknowledgment that your plea waives your right to a trial.

While the judge doesn’t typically have input into the details of the plea agreement it is always his job to ensure the procedures within his court are done according to the law of the land, with your rights in mind.

When you are facing serious charges, a plea bargain often looks tempting. However, giving up your right to a trial is a very serious matter and one you should only consider after consulting with your attorney.

A local, experienced criminal lawyer will know what is a good deal and what isn’t. And will fight for consideration that other attorney’s might not know about.

That’s what it is critical not to go to court by yourself,  even if you have decided just to pleading guilty. A criminal defense lawyer will tell you whether you are getting a good deal for your plea. How would you know otherwise if you are being treated fairly? In addition, in a case evaluation, a lawyer may notice things about your case that may make it worth fighting.

There may even be cause to get your case dismissed entirely, if the police or prosecutors made mistakes or acted improperly. Or at least, bringing up facts that may get you a better deal than you would get by yourself.

Take advantage of a free consultation from a criminal defense lawyer (perhaps several). We can help you determine the range of potential outcomes that you are facing with your specific charges, so you can make an informed decision about how to handle your case.