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What are Plea Bargains?

Plea bargains are agreements in criminal cases where defendants plead guilty to lesser charges in exchange for reduced sentences or dropped charges. This process streamlines the justice system, saving time and resources. Often, it's a strategic choice for both the defense and prosecution. Curious about how these deals shape legal outcomes and what they look like in action? Dive deeper into the world of plea bargaining with us.
R. Kayne
R. Kayne

A plea bargain is an agreement between a prosecutor and defendant whereby the prosecutor provides incentive for the defendant to plead guilty in order to avoid going to trial. Plea bargains can benefit defendants by guaranteeing particular outcomes. The two most common types of plea bargains are charge and sentence bargaining, where the first type reduces the charge(s), and the latter, the sentence(s). Fact bargaining is a less common type of plea bargain.

If the defendant is facing multiple charges, a charge bargain might involve dropping some or even most of the charges with the defendant pleading guilty to the remaining charges. If the defendant is only facing a single charge, the prosecutor might offer the defendant a chance to plead guilty to a lesser charge.

A plea bargain might be used to keep someone out of prison.
A plea bargain might be used to keep someone out of prison.

Alternately, the charge might remain the same but with a reduced sentence that reflects the lower end of compensatory sentencing for that crime. If the charge carries 10-20 years, for example, a sentencing bargain might guarantee ten years with a chance for parole after seven. In death penalty cases plea bargains often involve guaranteeing the defendant life in prison rather than going to trial to risk a possible death sentence. Sentence plea bargains typically have to be pre-approved by the trial judge.

A judge must approve a plea bargain before it is final.
A judge must approve a plea bargain before it is final.

A third, less common type of plea bargain is fact bargaining, whereby the prosecution might agree not to contest the defendant’s version of events, might agree to be lenient on accomplices, or might agree to keep certain aggravating factual information from the court in order to avoid a higher, mandatory sentence associated with such circumstances. Fact bargaining can also involve other agreements such as arranging for the defendant to go to a particular prison, giving the defendant immunity against crimes for which he has not been charged, or attempting to get charges in other jurisdictions dismissed.

A defendant facing multiple charges may negotiate a plea bargain that drops some of the charges, in exchange for a guilty plea to the remaining charges.
A defendant facing multiple charges may negotiate a plea bargain that drops some of the charges, in exchange for a guilty plea to the remaining charges.

Most often a prosecutor will offer a defendant a chance at a plea bargain, though public pressure to prosecute a particular defendant to the full extent of the law, politics or other issues might intervene. A defense attorney might also approach the prosecutor on behalf of his or her client to plead out the case, though plea bargains are not a right of the defendant, but a prosecutorial option.

A plea bargain is an agreement between a prosecutor and a defendant.
A plea bargain is an agreement between a prosecutor and a defendant.

For the defendant, the best possible outcome is going to trial and being found not guilty, so plea bargains must be considered carefully by the defendant and his or her attorney. When a plea bargain is struck, the details should clearly be stated on the record to protect the rights of the defendant where these terms are concerned. The defendant might also have obligations to meet as part of the plea bargain, such as testifying against a co-defendant or providing key information about the case.

A defendant might have obligations to meet as part of a plea bargain, such as testifying against a co-defendant.
A defendant might have obligations to meet as part of a plea bargain, such as testifying against a co-defendant.

When a defendant agrees to a plea bargain, he or she gives up the right to a trial and the right to remain silent. Generally a judge must approve a plea bargain before it is final. If a judge rejects a plea bargain, the defendant can reassert his or her right to a trial.

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Discussion Comments

sapphire12

@BambooForest, I think that some of that does go on, and there are many who believe that plea bargains are often the result of a defendant being given poor or limited advice about his or her case, causing the person to believe a plea bargain is the best option when it is not.

BambooForest

Were I ever in that situation, I do not know if I would be willing to go the route of a plea bargain conviction. It seems that many people consider them because while they are innocent, there is not substantial evidence to defend their case.

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    • A plea bargain might be used to keep someone out of prison.
      By: Eric BVD
      A plea bargain might be used to keep someone out of prison.
    • A judge must approve a plea bargain before it is final.
      By: apops
      A judge must approve a plea bargain before it is final.
    • A defendant facing multiple charges may negotiate a plea bargain that drops some of the charges, in exchange for a guilty plea to the remaining charges.
      By: Marc Roche
      A defendant facing multiple charges may negotiate a plea bargain that drops some of the charges, in exchange for a guilty plea to the remaining charges.
    • A plea bargain is an agreement between a prosecutor and a defendant.
      By: James Martin
      A plea bargain is an agreement between a prosecutor and a defendant.
    • A defendant might have obligations to meet as part of a plea bargain, such as testifying against a co-defendant.
      By: TAGSTOCK2
      A defendant might have obligations to meet as part of a plea bargain, such as testifying against a co-defendant.