Introduction to Understanding Plea Bargains
Understanding a plea bargain, and how it functions in our criminal justice system, can give you not only a better understanding of the criminal defense process but also be helpful if you are ever in a situation where you may have to take a plea bargain.
What is a Plea Bargain?
The majority of criminal cases never actually go to trial.[i] In fact, about 90% of all criminal cases end with a plea bargain and avoid the courtroom almost all together.[ii] Considering how backed up our justice system is, especially the criminal side, it is amazing to think that so many criminal cases just end in plea bargains. Who knows what the criminal justice system would look like if plea bargains were eliminated all together. So, what is a plea bargain?
A plea bargain is simply an agreement, which is created between the defendant to a criminal case and the prosecutor.[iii] This agreement is for the defendant to either accept or decline an offer to plead guilty or plead no contest to the charge in exchange for the prosecutor either dropping another charge (or multiple charges), or to reduce the charge to a less serious offense.[iv] A plea agreement could also act as a bargaining tool for the defendant, who then can ask the prosecutor to recommend lesser sentencing to the judge in exchange for the plea.[v]
A plea bargain can be divided into two categories: sentence bargaining and charge bargaining.[vi] Sentence bargaining is a method used by the prosecutor to have the defendant plead guilty to the charge if the defendant gets a lesser sentence.[vii] This is good for the defendant because he will receive a lesser sentence, and it is good for the prosecutor because the defendant will still plead guilty. Now, the charge bargaining is much more beneficial for the defendant because now he can receive a lesser charge for the same act, or he may only plead guilty to one charge rather than the four he had originally. This could be beneficial to the prosecutor too, because the defendant is still pleading guilty to something, rather than walking away without any charges.
In some situations, a prosecutor could offer to drop a charge, or decrease sentencing for the defendant – if the defendant would provide information or testify against another person. This type of tactic is often used if the defendant at hand is a low level drug dealer, but he has information on the higher up drug dealer. It is a good situation for the prosecutor, because he will not only get the low lever drug dealer, but he will get information on the higher up drug dealer for a later possible bust. Plea bargaining can be a great tool for both the defendant and the prosecutor.
Why do Prosecutor’s Offer Plea Bargains?
The criminal court calendar is overflowing with cases, even with the plea bargain rate as high as it is.[viii] So, because the calendar is already so filled up, prosecutors and judges feel this push to extend more plea bargains every year, in an attempt to help clear up the courts calendar.[ix] Criminal trials are almost never short. Most criminal trials can take weeks, if not months to complete.[x] For more serious crimes, it could take years to get through the process – and that is for the trial phase, which does not count all of the appeals those defendants may seek. With a plea bargain, it could take minutes to complete and have the defendant on his or her way out the door and off the courts calendar.
But not every state treats plea bargains the same way. In fact, California has a strict rule when it comes to plea bargains. In 1982, California passed Proposition 8, which planned plea bargains when the information (the document that formally charges a defendant with a crime, issued after a preliminary hearing) or the indictment (the charging document issued by a grand jury) gave the defendant a charge for a serious felony.[xi] The serious felonies included were certain violent sex crimes, any felony in which the defendant used a gun, or any offense of driving while under the influence.[xii] There were only three exceptions to this rule, where a plea bargain would be acceptable.[xiii] Those exceptions included: if there was insufficient evidence to prove the people’s case, the testimony of a material witness cannot be obtained, or a reduction or dismissal would not result in a substantial change in sentence.[xiv]
There are a lot of benefits to accepting a plea, which will be discussed below, so it appears that the goal of California was to take away those incentives for particular crimes that the state believed should be tried to the full extent of the law. So, rather than allowing a person who committed a violent sex crime to get a year in jail, they are forced to go to trial where the jail time is likely much, much higher.
The prosecutor may also offer the defendant a plea bargain if they believe that the case against the defendant may not be as strong as they want it to be. If the prosecutor feels like a jury could potentially let this guy off, for one reason or another, offering a plea bargain to the defendant could ensure that the defendant actually pays for the crimes he has been accused of committing.
Why do Defendant’s Accept Plea Bargains?
The constitution of the United States provides that the state must prove their case against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt, and must prove each and every element of the case.[xv] The court will presume all defendants as innocent, until proven guilty.[xvi] Defendants have the right to stay silent, meaning they are not required to testify at a criminal trial nor can they be compelled to do so.[xvii] Every citizen has the right against self incrimination, so staying quiet can be the best option for criminal defendants. Nearly every state requires that the jury be unanimous – even one juror who does not believe the defendant is guilty could cause the jury to be hung (unable to reach a decision).[xviii] If a defendant is found guilty, they have the option to appeal the decision. Whether or not the appeal would be heard, or be successful is another story, but it is still an option.
So – why do so many defendants chose a plea bargain over a trial, which seems to be heavily in their favor as right as constitutional rights? Well, as stated previously, the court system is incredibly clogged in the United States, so the prosecutor and judges are more likely to want to work with a defendant on a plea bargain over trying the case in court.[xix] For the defendants who know they committed the crime, or know they do not stand a chance at trial – they can put pressure on the prosecutor to get a better plea bargain because they are going to avoid the court system. Since the prosecutor does not want to try every case that comes to his desk – working with a defendant to put together a plea bargain is an ideal situation.
There are a lot of other incentives as well. For one, it saves a lot of money to accept a plea bargain.[xx] The defendant will save money on attorneys fees, lost wages at work, child care costs, and many more if the defendant avoids trial and takes a plea bargain. Next, the defendant could get out of jail. Even though most people are offered bail to get out of jail – not everyone can afford it. So, if the defendant pleads guilty through a plea bargain, they will likely get out of jail. If they chose to go to trial, they will have to sit in jail during that entire process, which could take years to complete. Next, a plea bargain resolves the matter quickly.[xxi] Some people do not want to go through the long, draining process of a criminal trial – even if they have a fairly good case. Some people just want to take a plea bargain, and move on with their life (even if it means a criminal charge on their record).
One of the biggest reasons why defendants chose plea bargains over going to trial, is because going to trial is risky. You never know who will be sitting in the jury box, or what the judge is thinking while you are going through your trial. If the defendant cannot afford an attorney, or their public defender never spends time working on their case, going to trial can be intimidating. So even if the defendant believes they are innocent, the uncertainty of trial could cause them to want to take a plea bargain instead. Because at least with a plea bargain, you know right away what type of sentencing you will have to do as compared to trial where anything could happen.
Finally, accepting a plea bargain keeps the entire process out of the public eye. Depending on the type of crime, and the status of the individual in the community, keeping the process under wraps could be the biggest incentive of all. When it comes to accepting a plea bargain, it is done so behind closed doors between the defendant and the prosecutor.[xxii]This is compared to a criminal trial, which is open to the public to come and watch. Even though anyone can look up criminal records of an adult, if the defendant is quiet about the situation – then most people will not even know to look. If the defendant goes to trial, it is more likely to be leaked to the public, and become a much bigger deal than the defendant ever wanted. Call to speak with a Phoenix criminal lawyer about plea bargaining in criminal cases.
[i] See Why Do Most Criminal Cases end with Plea Bargains? Criminal Lawyers.com (Accessed August 21, 2016) http://criminal.lawyers.com/criminal-law-basics/plea-bargains-or-agreements-and-sentencing.html
[iii] See The Basics of a Plea Bargain NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 22, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/the-basics-plea-bargain.html
[vi] See The Basics of a Plea Bargain NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 22, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/the-basics-plea-bargain.html
[xii] See The Basics of a Plea Bargain NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 22, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/the-basics-plea-bargain.html
[xv] See Why Do Most Criminal Cases end with Plea Bargains? Criminal Lawyers.com (Accessed August 21, 2016) http://criminal.lawyers.com/criminal-law-basics/plea-bargains-or-agreements-and-sentencing.html
[xviii] See Must All Juries be Unanimous Find Law (Accessed August 24, 2016) http://litigation.findlaw.com/legal-system/must-all-jury-verdicts-be-unanimous.html
[xix] See Defendant’s Incentives for Accepting Plea Bargains NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 20, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/plea-bargains-defendants-incentives-29732.html
[xxii] See The Basics of a Plea Bargain NOLO Legal Encyclopedia (Accessed August 22, 2016) http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/the-basics-plea-bargain.html