A lot of civil cases are resolved outside of court through a settlement process – each side avoids the headache and cost of going to trial by sacrificing a little bit, but coming out with a mutually satisfying result. A similar process occurs in criminal settings, through plea bargaining. The state and the defendant come to an agreement that avoids a costly, lengthy trial (and usually avoids a lengthy sentence for the defendant).
Plea bargains are beneficial to all parties involved, for several reasons. First, the defendant is usually the more vulnerable of the two should the case go to trial. A jury can be unpredictable, particularly if the case is emotionally charged – like if the victim is a child. Defendants can thus avoid the uncertainty of a trial, and likely maneuver a guaranteed, reasonable result (like a lower sentence). They can also avoid the cost of having an attorney represent them. The entire trial process can take multiple days, not including the actual trial preparation. For an attorney who charges a few hundred dollars each hour, this can result in a bill in the thousands of dollars. Further, just like in a civil case, a long, publicized criminal trial can be bad for the defendant’s reputation. A quick resolution can ensure a lower profile. A plea bargain can avoid this cost entirely. For the state, if a case can be pled out, the prosecution can allocate its more limited resources to some of the more difficult or high-profile cases on its docket. It also saves the court system at large from having to try every single case, which would result in huge waiting periods for every defendant.
Plea bargaining can take several forms. Sometimes, the defendant could plead guilty to a much lesser criminal charge – this is often the case in drug or assault crimes. For example, if someone is charged with a first degree assault, they might be able to plea to second or third degree – a less serious offense. Sometimes, the plea is guilty as charged, but the State will recommend a lowered sentence. Importantly, the judge is not required to follow the prosecutor’s suggestion or even accept the plea. No plea bargain is guaranteed; however, judges recognize the benefits, and will very often accept the recommendations presented to them by the state. Plea bargains can also involve a suspended adjudication, and send the defendant to certain agencies that have diversion programs. These kinds of programs can be anything from rehabilitation facilities, therapy programs, or even classes like anger management. If the defendant successfully completes these programs, very often they are not convicted of the crime, and the case is dismissed.
Previously, plea bargaining usually happened only between the state and the defendant (or their attorney). However, victims’ rights advocated have started to become more involved, with some states allowing victims to have input in the plea bargaining process. However, ultimately, it is the decision of the judge to uphold the plea bargain or not. Having a good criminal defense attorney on your side can make a huge difference in coming up with a satisfactory resolution between the parties without having to risk a trial. Obtaining effective defense counsel is your right, and you should pursue this right to the fullest. Hopefully, any contact you have with the criminal justice system will be short and fair. Plea bargaining is one way to ensure this.