Many defendants can negotiate a plea bargain in part because criminal courts are so crowded, which means prosecutors and judges feel pressure to move cases quickly through the system. Trials can take days, weeks, or sometimes months, while guilty pleas can often be arranged in minutes. Read on to learn the pros and cons of plea bargains for defendants and prosecutors.
For most defendants, the main benefit of plea bargaining is receiving a lighter sentence and/or a less severe charge than they might get if they go to trial and lose.
Example: Commander O.M. Pyre is charged with 20 counts of burglary after a spree of burglaries in his neighborhood. 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'll be eligible for parole earlier than if he were convicted on every charge at trial.
As the above example shows, the main benefit a defendant usually gets out of a plea deal is less time in jail or prison, and fewer convictions. But plea bargains can have many other benefits for the defendant. Here are some of them.
Defendants who are represented by private counsel can save a bundle on attorneys' fees by accepting a plea bargain. It almost always takes more time and money to bring a case to trial than to negotiate and handle a plea bargain.
Defendants who are held in custody—who either do not have the right to bail, can't afford bail, or don't qualify for release on OR—might get out of jail immediately after they plead guilty or no contest. The defendant might get out and be put on probation, or sentenced to community service. Or, the defendant might have to serve more time but will still get out much sooner than if they went to trial.
A plea bargain resolves the case much more quickly than a trial, which can reduce the stress of being charged in a criminal case. It can take months and sometimes a year or more before a case goes to trial. And trials tend to be much more stressful for defendants, who have to listen to witnesses give evidence against them, and wait until the end of the trial to find out their fate. But a guilty plea ends the case right away and provides a guaranteed result, which is usually less stressful.
In felony cases, some defendants who don't stand a good chance at trial might want to plead quickly so they can move to prison rather than stay in country jail awaiting a trial. A move to prison can be a step up if the jail conditions are worse than prison conditions. And people in prison might have more privileges (like classes and more time outdoors) than people in jail awaiting trial. Also, when defendants go to prison after a plea deal, they know how long they'll be in, and don't have to spend what might feel like endless hours waiting around in jail for trial, not knowing what will happen.
Pleading guilty or no contest in exchange for a reduction in the number of charges or the seriousness of the offense 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 ever convicted in the future. For example, a second conviction for driving under the influence (DUI) may carry mandatory jail time, whereas if the first DUI offense had been bargained down to reckless driving, there may be no jail time for a second DUI.
Even for people who are never rearrested, getting a charge reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor has other benefits:
In addition, it's often advantageous to reduce a felony that constitutes a strike under a three strikes law to one that doesn't.
Prosecutors may reduce charges that are perceived as socially offensive to something less offensive in exchange for a guilty plea. For example, a prosecutor may reduce a molestation or rape case to an assault. This can have a major impact on the defendant's relationship with friends and family. Perhaps even more critical, sometimes defendants convicted of stigmatizing offenses may be at a greater risk of being harmed in prison than if they're convicted of an offense that doesn't carry the same stigma.
Avoiding publicity from a trial is often important to famous people, public officials, ordinary people who depend on their reputations to earn a living, and people who don't want to bring further embarrassment to their families. Pleading guilty or no contest limits how much someone will be in the public eye. While news of the plea itself may be public, the news is short-lived compared to news reporting of a trial.
Some defendants plead guilty to take the blame (or the "rap") for someone else or to end the case quickly so that others who may be jointly responsible are not investigated.
Depending on the crime, noncitizens who plead guilty can be deported after they finish serving their sentences. Pleading guilty to an offense that doesn't trigger deportation can be a huge benefit of plea bargaining for people trying to avoid deportation.
Prosecutors benefit from plea bargains because they have far more cases than can possibly be tried. Crowded court calendars mean that the prosecutor's staff is overworked. Because plea bargains are much quicker and require less work than trials, they're easier on the prosecutor's budget.
Also, because there are far more cases than there is time to bring them all to trial, prosecutors have to be careful that cases aren't dismissed for speedy trial violations.
Plea deals also give prosecutors a guaranteed conviction, whereas a trial can sometimes be a roll of the dice. Prosecutors' conviction statistics are often important to their careers, especially if they're elected to the position.
Depending on the case, a plea bargain can have disadvantages for the defendant, prosecutor, or both.
Plea bargains could lead some innocent defendants to plead guilty just to get out of jail quickly. Jail is pretty unpleasant and anxiety-producing, and people in jail often fear losing their job or their housing if they miss too much work. Also, a defendant who pleads guilty usually can't appeal the conviction or sentence they receive.
Plea deals usually mean that the defendant is getting a break, and sometimes prosecutors are reluctant to let them off easy. Because prosecutors have too many cases to take to trial, they might agree to plea deals even when they think the defendant doesn't deserve it. Prosecutors also have to answer to victims, who might feel cheated of their day in court and believe the defendant isn't getting a long enough sentence.
This article contains excerpts from The Criminal Law Handbook, by Paul Bergman, J.D., and Sara J. Berman, J.D.