Why Judges and Prosecutors Engage in Plea Bargaining

Plea bargains can reduce court backlogs, ease financial strains on prosecutor's offices, and free up jail and prison space.

By , J.D., UCLA School of Law
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Plea bargains hold many advantages for actors in the criminal legal system, not just defendants. Prosecutors and judges stand to gain as well.

Understanding How Plea Bargains Benefit Judges and Prosecutors

For judges, a primary incentive to accept plea bargains is to move along their crowded calendars. Most judges simply don't have time to try every case that comes through the door. Prosecutors face similar pressures. Plea bargains may also benefit other parts of the system.

Reducing Backlogs on Courtroom and Prosecution Calendars

Some criminal cases can take a year or more to process through the trial court. The more cases that go to trial, the more crowded a judge's calendar becomes. Clogged calendars lead to backlogs and speedy trial concerns. Judges need to move cases along to protect the constitutional rights of defendants and all citizens. Every person has a right to access justice. And a seriously clogged calendar delays justice for everyone.

For a prosecutor, the judge's concerns about clogged calendars are the prosecutor's concerns as well. To keep judges happy (and keep the machine rolling), prosecutors must keep cases moving. Prosecutors are, of course, also concerned for their own calendars.

Lightening Case Loads and Costs

Clogged calendars mean that the prosecutor's staff is overworked. Plea bargains lighten the staff's caseload. Because plea bargains are much quicker and require less work than trials, they are also easier on the prosecutor's budget. With today's cutbacks on already slim resources, prosecutors will have additional time and resources for more important cases if they conclude a large number of less serious cases with plea bargains.

Guaranteeing a Conviction

Another benefit to the prosecution is an assured conviction. No matter how strong the evidence, no case is ever a slam dunk. The prosecution may wage a long, expensive, and valiant battle, and still lose the case.

Protecting Sources

Plea bargains also allow prosecutors to protect government informants. Many informants have criminal records. If a case were to go to trial and the informant were to testify, the defense in many cases could impeach the informant with their past criminal history. But in the context of a plea bargain, the prosecution doesn't have to turn over an informant's criminal history to the defense. (U.S. v. Ruiz, 536 U.S. 622 (2002).)

Flipping Suspects or Other Defendants

Plea bargains also allow prosecutors to offer good deals to a defendant who could help them in another case. For instance, they can offer a deal to someone who, though guilty, is prepared to give testimony about a codefendant or help resolve some other unsolved case.

Permitting Prosecutorial Discretion

Prosecutors may use plea bargains to circumvent laws they either don't agree with or that are very unpopular. For instance, a prosecutor may disagree with laws prohibiting possession for personal use of small amounts of marijuana, so the prosecutor's office may have an unwritten policy of giving all such offenders "offers they can't refuse," such as a $25 fine and 10 hours of community service.

Reducing Overcrowding in Jails and Prisons

Although more of a benefit to the system as a whole, plea bargains can ease the burdens on local jails (where defendants may be held pending trial) by quickly processing criminal cases and moving convicted defendants to prison or out on probation. A plea bargain can also mean shorter sentences for defendants, which eases the burden on local jails and state prisons housing convicted inmates.

Do Victims Benefit From Plea Bargains?

Victims can also benefit from plea bargains, especially when a victim wants to avoid the stress of testifying and facing a perpetrator at a trial. A guilty or no contest plea is quicker and also tends to receive less publicity than a trial.

But not all victims are happy to see cases bargained away. Many victims are dissatisfied when defendants are allowed to enter plea bargains, feeling that the harm they suffered was disregarded and the defendants got off too easily.

As a result of the efforts of victims' rights groups, laws in many states now allow victims to have a say in the plea bargaining process. Some states require that prosecutors consult with victims before entering into plea bargains. In other states, victims have a legal right to come to court and address a judge personally before the judge decides whether to accept a plea bargain. Still, a third possibility for victims in many states is to consult with the probation officer before the officer prepares the presentence reports that often influence a judge's sentencing decision.

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