The Plea Bargain Stage of a Criminal Case

Stages of the Criminal Justice System

A judge as seen from behind the criminal defendant and his lawyer in a courtroom.

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Due to the overburdened criminal justice system, the vast majority of criminal cases are settled through a process known as plea bargaining. In a plea bargain agreement, the defendant agrees to plead guilty rather than proceeding to a jury trial.

When Does Plea Bargaining Occur?

In a plea bargain deal, both sides gain something from the arrangement. The prosecution gains a conviction without the time and expense of a trial, while the defendant might get a reduced sentence or have some of the charges against them dropped.

In some cases (for example, the Jaycee Dugard case), the prosecution will offer a plea deal so the victim does not have to go through the drama and stress of testifying at a trial.

Factors Influencing a Plea Deal

Whether or not the prosecution and defense agree to enter into plea bargain negotiations depend on several factors:

  • The seriousness of the crime itself.
  • The strength of the evidence against the defendant.
  • The likelihood of a guilty verdict at trial.

Criminal Court Dockets Overwhelmed

If the charge is very serious and the evidence against the defendant is very strong, as in the first-degree murder case against Casey Anthony, for example, the prosecution can refuse to enter into any plea deal.

However, if the evidence in a case is such that the prosecution might find it difficult to convince a juror beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecution may be willing to negotiate a plea deal. The reason the average criminal case is settled by a plea bargain is because of the overwhelming caseload facing the court system. Only about 10 percent of criminal cases go to trial.

Reduced Charges, Reduced Sentence

For a guilty defendant, the advantages to a plea bargain are obvious: either reduced charges or a reduced sentence. Sometimes, a plea deal can reduce a felony charge to a misdemeanor, a significant difference for the defendant. Many plea deals have resulted in a reduced sentence for the defendant.

One hitch in the plea bargain system is the fact that the judge in the case does not have to accept it. The prosecution can only recommend the agreement to the judge, but cannot guarantee that the judge will follow it.

Bargaining Prohibited in Some Cases

Also, some states have passed laws prohibiting plea bargaining in certain cases. Some states will not allow a drunk driving charge to be bargained down to reckless driving, for example. Other states prohibit plea bargains for sex offenders or repeat offenders who may be considered to be a danger to the public.

The plea bargain itself usually takes place between the prosecutor's office and the defense attorney. Rarely do prosecutors bargain directly with defendants.

Victims Considered in Plea Bargains

For a plea bargain to be accepted, the defendant has to knowingly waive his right to a trial by jury and the facts in the case have to support the charges to which the defendant is pleading.

Some states have victims' rights laws that require a prosecutor to discuss the terms of any plea deal with the victim of the crime before making the offer to the defendant.

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Montaldo, Charles. "The Plea Bargain Stage of a Criminal Case." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Montaldo, Charles. (2020, August 26). The Plea Bargain Stage of a Criminal Case. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "The Plea Bargain Stage of a Criminal Case." ThoughtCo. (accessed July 23, 2021).