What is a Plea Bargain and How Do Plea Bargains Work?

If we didn’t have plea bargains as an option in our justice system, the courts would be so overloaded with cases that nothing would ever get done. Some people believe that plea bargains allow criminals to get off on lighter sentences when they should be serving their full sentences in prison, but in reality, many criminals that would otherwise have been acquitted are at least paying some sort of a price.

A plea bargain is a “deal” made between the prosecutor of a criminal case and the defendant, usually facilitated by the defendant’s lawyer. In exchange for a lesser charge or a reduced sentence, the defendant enters a plea of “guilty” or “no contest” and does not go to trial.

There are two basic types of plea bargains:

1. Charge Bargain

A charge bargain is a deal made between the prosecutor and the defendant for the allows the defendant to plead guilty to a lesser charge. For example, an alleged murderer might be able to enter into a plea bargain with the prosecutor by pleading guilty to manslaughter, rather than going to trial for second-degree murder.

2. Sentence Bargain

In a case where the defendant is charged with a heinous crime, the prosecutor might offer to charge him or her with the maximum charge, but with the lowest penalty. For example, if the law in their state says that second-degree murder carries a sentence of 12-25 years, then a sentence bargain may assure the defendant that he or she will receive only 12 years. Sentence bargains are closely monitored by the trial judge, and are usually offered in a case where the defendant is willing to testify against an accomplice.

If you are offered a plea bargain from a prosecutor, it is important to weigh the factors with your attorney to decide if it is the best way to go. In some cases, if you know that you will be found guilty, it is better to accept the plea bargain and serve your time rather than taking your chances with a higher sentence at trial. However, if your attorney is confident that you will be acquitted, going to trial might result in no sentence at all.

Before accepting a plea bargain, make sure to get the offer in writing and to discuss it at length with your attorney. Accepting an offer that it put on the table right away might result in a poor decision. However, most plea bargains have a short shelf life, and the prosecutor can take the bargain away if he or she feels you are taking too long to decide.

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