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To plead or not to plead? It’s a really big question

On Behalf of | Nov 20, 2023 | Criminal Defense

A plea bargain is an arrangement between the prosecution and a defendant in a criminal case. Generally, it involves the defendant agreeing to plead guilty in exchange for some concession from the prosecutor. Usually, that means either lesser charges (such as drug possession instead of drug trafficking) or a lower sentence (such as probation instead of jail time).

Given that 98% of criminal cases in the federal courts end with a plea bargain and the American Bar Association reports that criminal cases in some states only go to trial less than 3% of the time, every defendant realistically has to consider the possibility that they may be asked to make a big decision – to accept a plea agreement or not.

What’s the benefit of a plea deal for a defendant?

It should never be forgotten that plea agreements ultimately benefit the state (by keeping the dockets free and costs down) and prosecutors (by keeping their “winning records” high), but they are not without advantages to defendants, either. These include:

  • Predictability: When you make a deal, you don’t have to face the uncertainty of a trial and (if you’re convicted) sentencing by a judge.
  • Better outcomes: Losing at a trial almost guarantees that you’ll end up with a harsher sentence than you would through a plea agreement. Some plea agreements, like those through drug courts, may even allow a defendant to eventually expunge their record and get a clean slate.
  • Lower costs: Trials are expensive, and the financial burden may not be easy for a defendant’s family to bear. A plea deal can be far less costly.
  • Less publicity: Trials are often public events. Some defendants would rather avoid negative publicity – especially if the details of their case are disturbing or embarrassing.
  • Quick release: If you’re facing a lower-level offense, you may be able to bargain for immediate release through “time served” or probation. That can allow you to return to your family, job and life right away.

On the flip side, however, plea deals aren’t always the right path to take. Prosecutors typically have more bargaining power during negotiations, and they can exploit that to pressure a defendant into taking a deal even when the defendant is factually innocent.

Taking a plea deal also usually means admitting your guilt and accepting the fact that you have limited appeal options – even if something comes to light later that could exonerate you. In most cases, it also means carrying a criminal record, with all the collateral consequences that can bring.

What should you do if you’re offered a plea? Ultimately, you’re the only one who can make that decision, but you’ll be doing yourself a grave injustice if you don’t seek experienced legal guidance before committing to an approach.