For most defendants, the principal benefit to plea bargaining is receiving a lighter sentence for a less severe charge than might result from a conviction at trial.
Example: Commander O.M. Pyre is charged with 20 counts of burglary after a spree of burglaries in his neighborhood. Assistant District Attorney Art Mills offers to drop the charges to two counts of burglary if Pyre pleads guilty right away. Pyre takes the deal, because his sentence will be shorter and he will be eligible for parole earlier than if he were convicted on every charge at trial.
Another fairly obvious benefit that defendants can reap from plea bargaining is that they can save a bundle on attorneys' fees, assuming they are represented by private counsel. It almost always takes a lot more time and effort to try a case than to negotiate and handle a plea bargain, so defense counsel typically charge a much higher fee if the case goes to trial.
There may also be other benefits for defendants who plead guilty or no contest, such as the following.
Getting out of jail. In-custody defendants who either do not have the right to bail or cannot afford bail may get out of jail immediately following the judge's acceptance of a plea. Depending on the offense, the defendant may get out altogether or on probation, with or without some community service obligations. Or, the defendant may have to serve more time, but will still get out much sooner than if the case had gone to trial.
Even if the plea results in the defendant being moved from jail to prison, even this may occasionally be a benefit. A move to prison can be a step up if the jail conditions are worse than prison conditions. And convicts in prison may have privileges that defendants awaiting trial in jail don't have. Furthermore, even when defendants go to prison, there is some intangible benefit to simply having resolution—knowing how long they will be in, rather than spending what may feel like endless hours waiting around in jail.
Getting the matter over quickly. This has the intangible benefit, touched on above, of providing resolution to what is almost always a stressful event (being charged with a crime). People who are charged with a crime while on vacation, for example, might opt for a plea bargain in order to get back home sooner. And defendants with jobs who are charged with minor offenses may prefer to resolve the case in one court appearance rather than missing work repeatedly. Going to trial usually requires much more time in court than a plea bargain.
Having fewer and/or less serious offenses on one's record. Pleading guilty or no contest in exchange for a reduction in the number of charges or the seriousness of the offenses looks a lot better on a defendant's record than the convictions that might result following trial. This can be particularly important if the defendant is convicted in the future. For example, a second DUI conviction may carry mandatory jail time, but if the first DUI offense had been bargained down to reckless driving (for example), there may be no jail time for the second DUI arrest. Even for people who are never rearrested, getting a charge reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, or from a felony that constitutes a strike under a "three strikes" law to one that doesn't, can be a critical benefit. Some professional licenses must be forfeited upon conviction of a felony. Future employers may not want to hire someone previously convicted of a felony. Felony convictions may be used in certain court proceedings (even civil cases) to discredit people who testify as witnesses. Felons can't own or possess firearms. And in many jurisdictions, felons can't vote.
Having a less socially stigmatizing offense on one's record. Prosecutors may reduce charges that are perceived as socially offensive to less offensive charges in exchange for a guilty plea. For example, a prosecutor may reduce a molestation or rape case to an assault. Conviction of the lesser charge in this instance may allow the defendant to avoid having to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. Also, a lesser offense may lessen the likelihood that family members and friends will stigmatize a defendant. Of more immediate concern, sometimes defendants convicted of stigmatizing offenses are at a greater risk of being harmed (or killed) in prison.
Avoiding hassles. Some people plead guilty, especially to minor first offenses, without hiring a lawyer. If they waited to go to trial, they would have to find and hire a lawyer, spend at least some time working with the lawyer to prepare for trial, and pay the lawyer.
Avoiding publicity. Famous people, ordinary people who depend on their reputation in the community to earn a living, and people who don't want to bring further embarrassment to their families all may chose to plead guilty or no contest to get (and keep) their names out of the paper as quickly as possible. While news of the plea itself may be public, the news is short-lived compared to news of a trial. And rarely is a defendant's background explored in the course of a plea bargain to the extent it may be done in trial.
Keeping others out of the case. Some defendants plead guilty to take the blame (sometimes called the "rap") for someone else, or to end the case quickly so that others who may be jointly responsible are not investigated.
Avoiding deportation. Noncitizens who plead guilty may be deported after they have finished serving their misdemeanor or felony sentences. Defense lawyers must inform noncitizens that deportation is a potential consequence of a guilty plea (Padilla v. Kentucky, U.S. Sup. Ct. 2010). For noncitizens charged with crimes, therefore, pleading guilty to an offense that reduces the likelihood of deportation is another potential benefit of plea bargaining.
This article was excerpted from The Criminal Law Handbook, by Paul Bergman, J.D., and Sara J. Berman, J.D.