Criminal prosecutions in the United States are frequently settled without a jury trial through the process of plea bargaining. A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecutor and defendant in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to some of the charges, or a lesser charge, in exchange for a reduced sentence, or some other concession by the prosecution.
While a plea bargain may be entered into at any point in the process, even after a trial has begun, most are entered into before a trial, freeing up valuable resources and allowing prosecutors and the courts to focus their time and attention on other cases. To explore this concept, consider the following plea bargaining definition.
Definition of Plea Bargaining
- The making of an agreement between a criminal defendant and the prosecutor that allows the defendant to plead guilty to a lesser charge, thereby avoiding the risk of a more severe sentence.
Pros and Cons of Plea Bargaining
Although some Americans feel that the practice of plea bargaining lets criminals off with a lighter sentence than they deserve, the system benefits both the defendant and legal system in a number of ways. For example, by lightening the burden on prosecutors and trial courts, taxpayers are saved a great deal of money. In addition, prosecutors may offer lesser charges and reduced sentences in exchange for information from, and testimony by, the defendant in a more serious case.
Benefits of Plea Bargaining
Benefits for the defendant in plea bargaining may include:
- Reduced Anxiety – If a case goes to trial, the defendant suffers anxiety over whether he will get off or be convicted and receive the maximum sentence. Accepting a plea bargain relieves the anxiety that comes with uncertainty.
- Avoiding Incarceration – Avoiding the humiliation associated with spending time in jail, as well as being separated from family and friends, are big incentives to accept a plea agreement.
- Lesser Charges – Most plea bargains offer reduced charges, which not only comes with a reduced sentence, but doesn’t look as bad on the defendant’s permanent record.
- Reduced Sentence – Even if the defendant is not offered lesser charges, he may be offered a sentence substantially shorter than the maximum sentence. Such a reduction may shave years off the defendant’s prison time.
- Avoiding Publicity and Humiliation – A plea bargain may allow a defendant to plead guilty to a less shameful charge, and avoid having the case dragged out in front of the public and the news media.
Benefits of plea bargaining for the government include quicker resolution to a wide variety of criminal cases, and decreased load on the court system.
Disadvantages of Plea Bargaining
Plea bargaining offers no benefits to the innocent, and many people feel that it is entirely too easy to coerce innocent defendants to accept a plea bargain. Innocent defendants who are fearful they may be convicted of a serious crime at trial may agree to plead “no contest” to a lesser charge, even though they are not guilty.
Additionally, in a system that focuses on the ability to “make a deal,” the facts and details of what actually happened, and the legal consequences for those actions become less important. Many feel this leads to sloppy or incomplete investigations by the police and prosecutor, and poorly prepared cases by defense attorneys.
Coercion in Plea Bargaining
Recent laws impose stiffer sentencing guidelines, especially on repeat offenders, or those who have recently been convicted of other crimes. Prosecutors often offer lighter sentences as an incentive to avoid the costly trial phase. In fact, sentences handed down to defendants who go to trial have become so much greater than for those who accept a plea bargain, that many feel the gap may be used to coerce an agreement, or to punish individuals who exercise their right to a trial.
Florida v Shane Guthrie
Florida resident Shane Guthrie was arrested for assault on his girlfriend, and for threatening her with a knife. The prosecutor offered Guthrie a plea bargain for two years in prison plus an additional time spent on probation, in exchange for a plea of guilty. Guthrie rejected the offer, which prompted the prosecution to later offer him a deal for five years in prison. Guthrie again rejected the offer. In response to Guthrie’s desire to exercise his right to a trial, the prosecutor filed a more serious charge, which carries the possibility of imprisonment for life.
The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed this “legal vindictiveness,” defining it as the act of a prosecutor in retaliating against a defendant for exercising his legal right to trial, effectively denying his due process rights. While it may seem that this type of vindictiveness in prosecution would be illegal, it is not. The law specifically allows the infliction of more severe penalties on defendants who go to trial, as long as the sentencing is within statutory guidelines.
Plea Bargaining Cases on the Record
Once a plea agreement has been reached, the defendant and prosecutor will appear in court, where the details of the plea bargain will be clearly stated for the court record. The judge will ask a few questions to ensure that the defendant understands the terms of the agreement, and that he agrees to abide by them, before he hands down the agreed-upon sentence. In all plea bargaining cases, once a plea agreement has been entered, both sides are required by law to abide by the terms.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Coercion – The act of using force or intimidation to ensure compliance.
- Lesser Charge – A lesser charge, or included offense, shares some elements of the main charge or greater criminal offense. For example, trespassing is a lesser included offense of burglary, aggravated sexual assault is a lesser included offense of rape, and manslaughter is a lesser included offense of murder.
- No Contest – A plea that, while not an admission of guilt, will be treated as such for the purpose of sentencing.