What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Plea Bargaining?
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What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Plea Bargaining?

Posted on: December 13, 2021

Plea bargaining is a common strategy used in courtrooms across the United States. In fact, more than 90 percent of criminal defense cases are resolved through a plea bargain, whereas only 10 percent go to trial. 

What is a plea bargain? In general terms, in a plea bargain, the defendant, a person charged with a crime, agrees to plead guilty, usually to a lesser charge, in exchange for a lighter sentence or a dismissal of certain charges.

When deciding whether to enter a plea bargain, the judge or prosecutor will consider the following:

  • Seriousness of the alleged crime
  • Strength of evidence
  • Prospects of a guilty verdict in a trial

A primary incentive to accept a plea bargain for judges is to reduce the number of trials in an already backlogged court calendar. They also know that jails and prisons are vastly overcrowded, so they are conserving limited resources by allowing plea bargains for low-level crimes.

For prosecutors, a decreased caseload from plea bargaining is welcomed as well. In addition, plea bargaining assures them of a conviction, even if it is for a lesser charge or crime. Since prosecutors cannot predict whether they will win a case, a plea bargain assures them of at least some conviction.

Prosecutors may also use plea bargaining to strengthen their case when there are two defendants. They can potentially accept a plea bargain from one defendant in exchange for damaging testimony against the other. For example, if a low-level drug dealer is charged with a crime along with the head of a drug cartel, they may want the low-level dealer’s testimony to put the drug king behind bars.

Plea bargaining has advantages and disadvantages for a defendant. This discussion will take a closer look at both.

Advantages of Accepting a Plea Bargain

Criminal defendants may benefit from a plea bargain. Following are potential advantages their lawyer can pursue.

Reduced charges. Reduced charges can take many forms. Sometimes a defendant will plead guilty to a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Other times, they may plead guilty to a crime of a different class or degree. Their punishment and consequences of the crime may both be lessened. For example, a reduced charge may be able to be stricken from the defendant’s criminal record in the future.

Lighter sentence. A prosecutor or judge may offer the defendant a lighter sentence in a plea bargain. Because there is no way to predict the outcome of a trial, this type of plea bargain ensures the defendant will at least serve some time for the crime without the uncertainty of a guilty or innocent finding.

Cost savings. Criminal defendants with a private attorney, versus an appointed public defender, must pay for their lawyer’s services throughout the entire trial. A plea agreement can reduce the expense of a trial.

Quicker resolution. Once a defendant accepts a plea agreement and appears before the court, their case is basically over. If they had been in jail because of an inability to bond out, they would be released in most cases. 

Less uncertainty. A plea bargain removes uncertainty about the outcome of the trial for both the defendant and the prosecutor. The prosecutor may be satisfied that there is at least some punishment for the crime, even if it is not the full punishment they would seek in a trial. For the defendant, a plea bargain can help with the uncertainty about their future, as there is no need to go through a lengthy trial that may take months or years to be scheduled. They are also spared the emotional toll of waiting for a trial.

Reduced publicity. A public trial is on display for anyone to watch, write, or talk about. With a trial, the details of your life will be probed and discussed in public. A plea bargain can save you and your family members the embarrassment of a criminal trial. A lesser or changed charge can also preserve your reputation, even if you are not a public figure. Although a plea bargain is also a matter of public record, it is not as long lived or open as a trial.

Improved criminal record. A plea bargain can result in fewer or less severe offenses on the defendant’s record. When a defendant decides to plead guilty or no contest, they may get their charges reduced. In turn, their sentencing may be lighter. There are farther-reaching effects as well. For example, a misdemeanor looks much better to an employer or educational institution than does a felony. A misdemeanor charge also preserves certain rights for the defendant, such as keeping licenses or certifications, owning a firearm, and voting.

Avoiding additional punishment. A defendant charged with multiple instances of the same crime, such as 12 counts of burglary, may accept a plea bargain to admit guilt to a single count. This can reduce their sentence but still allow the prosecutor to punish them for the crime.

Disadvantages of Accepting a Plea Bargain

A defendant and their lawyer should thoroughly discuss the advantages and disadvantages of entering a plea bargain arrangement. Disadvantages can include the following.

Accepting a conviction unnecessarily. Sometimes a prosecutor offers a plea agreement because there are problems with the state’s case, such as lack of credible witnesses or inadequate evidence. By offering a plea bargain, they are asking the defendant to plead guilty to a crime they may not be convicted of in a court trial.

Giving up a potential not guilty verdict. When a defendant accepts a plea agreement, they are most likely going to plead guilty to some type of crime. Sometimes they are willing to do this because they are actually guilty and want a reduced sentence. But other times, they accept a plea because they are afraid a jury will find them guilty and give them a harsher punishment. The bottom line is that taking a plea bargain never lets the defendant hear the words “not guilty” or explain why they accepted a plea bargain.

Chance of coercion. Even with legal representation, a criminal defendant may feel pressure to accept a plea bargain. Prosecutors may emphasize maximum punishment or the consequences of a felony on the defendant’s record. A plea bargain, in essence, waives the defendant’s constitutional right to a trial. Sometimes, innocent people accept a plea bargain simply because they fear how a trial might turn out.

Court disapproval. If a defendant reaches a plea agreement with the prosecutor, it is not a done deal. The court still has to approve the agreement. Something could happen that makes the court not agree to the plea bargain, thereby dragging out the process even further.

Criminal record consequences. If a defendant goes to trial, they at least have the chance of being found not guilty. The charge will never appear on their criminal record. But if they plead guilty in a plea bargain, they may never get the crime expunged from their record. It may follow them the rest of their life.

Should a Defendant Accept a Plea Bargain?

Although a trial is a constitutional right for every criminal defendant, there may be times when it is better to accept a plea bargain. Only the defendant can make the final decision. They should do so after professional input from their lawyer.

Their lawyer can provide the advantages and disadvantages of plea bargaining to help the defendant make the decision. They can analyze the benefits and consequences to the defendant, their family, and their future.

If the defendant agrees to a plea bargain, their lawyer will handle all negotiations to get the most favorable terms for the defendant in the plea agreement.

Monmouth County Criminal Defense Lawyers at Ellis Law Will Uphold the Rights of Those Charged with a Crime

The Monmouth County criminal defense lawyers at Ellis Law understand how to defend people against accusations of crime. If you have been charged with a misdemeanor or felony, reach out to our experienced legal team. We will work hard to remove the charges held against you. For a free consultation, call us at 732-308-0200 or complete our online form. We are located in Freehold, New Jersey, and help clients throughout Freehold, East Brunswick, Toms River, Middletown, Jersey City, Neptune, Hudson County, Union County, Essex County, Monmouth County, Marlboro, and Ocean County, as well as Brooklyn, New York, and New York City.