Just as in other negotiations, such as those between a buyer and seller in a real estate transaction, there are strategies involved in plea bargaining. (For more information on this subject, see I’ve heard that prosecutors offer standard deals for certain charges. Should I still hire a lawyer?)
Prosecutors often initially charge defendants with more serious or multiple offenses, expecting to reduce or drop some later as bargaining chips. Because a great many plea bargains occur when the prosecutor agrees to drop one or more of the charges facing a defendant in exchange for a guilty or no contest plea, prosecutors tend to charge high in the beginning.
Example: Officer Rhett Cutler stopped Charlotte O’Hara for an unsafe lane change. While writing the ticket, Officer Cutler spotted what looked like a packet of illegal drugs on the back seat. O’Hara was arrested and ultimately charged with possession of illegal drugs for sale. By charging O’Hara with possession for sale, the prosecutor leaves wiggle room to drop the charge to “simple possession” in exchange for a guilty plea if the circumstances warrant the lesser charge.
For many common offenses, prosecutors in a given courthouse have worked out what is, in effect, a “price list,” setting out the typical sentences for different offenses. For example, in one area, it may be the prosecutors’ practice to uniformly offer all first-time DUI offenders who didn't have excessively high blood alcohol levels 48 hours in jail, probation, and fines (in addition to automatic DMV license suspension). And, judges may hand down uniform sentences pursuant to standard deals that don't specify the punishment (instead specifying only the charge the defendant will plead to and potentially a sentencing recommendation from the prosecution).
But not everyone gets the standard deal. Sentences may differ from case to case depending on a number of factors, such as:
Defense lawyers also look for specific characteristics of their clients that may be used to argue for leniency in any given case. One defense lawyer described plea bargaining as follows:
“Everyone in the system knows roughly what a given case is ‘worth.’ By balancing the seriousness of the crime and the defendant’s record (how much time the prosecution wants the defendant to do), against the strength of the evidence and the skill of the defense lawyer (how likely the prosecution is to get a conviction), a specific deal is arrived at.” (How Can You Defend Those People: The Making of a Criminal Lawyer, James S. Kunen (McGraw-Hill).)
Standard deals often aren't written down anywhere. Defense lawyers have to figure out what the “going price” is in a particular jurisdiction for the crime the defendant is charged with. Lawyers frequently find out by asking around among their colleagues. Also, some public defender offices keep internal records that they may share with private defense counsel.
A number of other factors may influence particular plea bargains, including:
Good defense lawyers should know this “lay of the land” information. Defense lawyers who are not personally familiar with these details tend to call and rely on colleagues who are more familiar with the local scoop. Such local factors can be critical. If the judge has a reputation for leniency, for instance, the defense lawyer may be able to get a better deal out of the prosecutor than if the judge has a get-tough reputation. Defendants also tend to find themselves in stronger bargaining positions when their cases are to be heard in busier courts, such as those in large, metropolitan areas, where many judges’ (and prosecutors’) foremost concern is to get through their backlog.