If you think the way the legal system is portrayed in movies and on television is realistic, then here’s some bad news for you: it’s not.
Movies and TV make it seem as if every criminal charge goes to trial. However, the reality is that a vast majority of cases are resolved through the use of what is called a plea bargain. Chances are, if you are ever charged with something, you’ll be offered a plea bargain to bring the case to an end.
That’s why every person should be familiar with what a plea bargain is and if it’s actually the right route. Here’s what you need to know about plea bargains in order to fully understand your options if offered one.
Plea Bargain: What Is It?
A plea bargain is a fairly straightforward concept to understand. It basically is a settlement between the defendant and the prosecution that involves a legally binding contract to resolve one or more of the criminal charges against them – but without a trial.
Plea bargains are offered after someone has been charged. You can even enter a plea bargain after a trial has begun – they can be agreed upon at any time before the judge or the jury returns a verdict.
In most cases, the plea bargain offered at the get-go is not usually the best deal. Make sure to get input from your attorney before agreeing to one.
How Are Plea Bargains Negotiated
Even though prosecutors may present plea bargains as a “take or leave it” type of offer, there is often room for negotiation. In fact, your defense attorney can initiate an offer of a plea bargain. It’s not simply up to the prosecution to do so.
In most cases, the case should be investigated before a plea bargain is offered from either side. Witnesses might be consulted, as well as other factors that may establish guilt or innocence. Most of the time, prosecutors are willing to negotiate a plea bargain, because it allows them to avoid the cost and time associated with a criminal trial.
It can take a few hours to negotiate a plea bargain, or it can take weeks or months. Patience is key to ensure you get the best deal possible.
Are There Advantages to Taking a Plea Bargain?
There are many ways plea bargains benefit prosecutors, but what about defendants?
There are some cases where it is advantageous to accept a plea bargain. After all, they allow you to also avoid the expense of a trial and possibly avoid jail time. They can also:
- Reduce jail or prison time in felony cases
- Reduce fines associated with criminal acts
- Provide help instead of incarceration for those with substance abuse issues
- Help some defendants to avoid collateral consequences of conviction such as losing the right to own a firearm
The types of sentences available through plea bargains are often better than what would result from a criminal trial, too.
As mentioned, several options can unfold. You may be:
- Allowed to go to treatment instead of prison
- Qualified for special courts such as mental health or drug court for your case
- Granted probation instead of jail time.
If a plea bargain can be reached before charges are filed, then it is considered a pretrial diversion. That is in your best interest.
Are There Disadvantages to a Plea Bargain?
There are a few disadvantages to a plea bargain that must be weighed carefully if you are considering one.
Perhaps the biggest is that if you don’t go to trial, you may not be acquitted or found not guilty for the crime. In other words, if you accept a plea bargain, in some cases, it counts as a conviction.
You also may lose the opportunity to appeal later. You might have to live with restrictions imposed by the plea bargain, such as counseling, drug testing, paying restitution to victims, and probation.
There is no right or wrong way to go about a plea bargain. Whether or not you should accept one depends on your own case and the circumstances surrounding it. This is what makes having a criminal defense attorney so important if you’re facing criminal charges – they can help to advise you as to whether a plea bargain is really in your best interest or not.
About the Author:
Andrew Bryant is a well-respected Colorado Springs criminal attorney who has been practicing in the area for years. A Colorado native, he returned to the home he loves after graduating from the University of Kentucky College of Law. Now, he uses the knowledge he gained as an El Paso County District Attorney to fight tirelessly for his clients’ rights. He is AV-Preeminent rated, has been recognized for his work by The National Trial Lawyers, and has been named to Best of the Springs lists by The Gazette for years.