Plea Bargaining

Did you know that most criminal cases never actually make it to a courtroom trial? In fact, contrary to how our legal system is often portrayed by the media, approximately 90% of all criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining. But what exactly does that mean?

A plea bargain occurs when the defendant (the person accused of the crime) agrees to plead guilty to one or more of the charges he or she is accused of committing. In exchange for the guilty plea, the prosecutor (the person responsible for proving the defendant guilty) agrees to reduce the defendant’s sentence and/or reduce the charges against him or her—tactics known as sentence bargaining and charge bargaining. The exact terms of this agreement will depend on a number of factors, including the nature of the offense, the defendant’s criminal history, as well as the evidence against him or her.

In cases where charge bargaining is used, the prosecutor agrees to charge the defendant with a lesser offense in exchange for his or her admission of guilt—reducing a drunk driving charge to reckless driving, for example. In turn, because the penalties for an reckless driving may be less severe than those associated with a drunk driving, the defendant may also receive a more lenient sentence.

On the other hand, if the prosecutor feels the defendant has been appropriately charged, he or she may attempt to negotiate a reduced sentence in lieu of charge bargaining. In other words, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to the offense, but the prosecutor agrees to seek a less severe sentence than what is normally given for the particular crime—so, in the example given earlier, the defendant would plead guilty to the reckless driving charge, but he or she would still receive a reduced sentence.

While prosecutors are responsible for negotiating a plea bargain, the agreement is not legally valid until it has been approved by a judge. Once accepted by the judge, the plea bargain becomes legally binding, and both the prosecutor and the defendant are required to uphold the terms of their agreement. If, however, the plea bargain is rejected, neither side is obligated to comply—the defendant, for instance, can change his or her plea, while the prosecutor can change the charges against the defendant and/or seek harsher penalties.