The criminal justice system in the United States has become overburdened by the sheer number of federal and state cases that keep piling in. About 30,000 people are arrested each day, and if all of these cases went to trial, the gears of justice would soon break down and grind to halt. To alleviate this pressure on the courts, lawyers have adopted the practice of plea bargaining to resolve most criminal cases. Here are the basics of this somewhat loose process.
A plea bargain, or plea deal, is a formal agreement made between a prosecutor and a defendant to settle a case without conducting a full trial. To achieve this end, the prosecutor makes an offer to reduce the severity of the potential punishment somehow if the defendant agrees to plead guilty or “no contest.” The advantage to both the prosecution and the defense is that they resolve the case quickly, affordably and in a somewhat predictable manner that both parties find better than the alternative of seeking a judgment after a drawn-out trial.
The courts generally recognize four kinds of plea bargains, as follows.
Charge bargains. Using this strategy, a prosecutor offers to charge the defendant with a less serious charge. For example, if the defendant is facing a felony charge of drug trafficking, the prosecutor might offer to dismiss that if the defendant pleads guilty to possession.
Count bargains. This is a variation of charge bargaining that comes into play if the defendant is facing multiple charges. The prosecutor can offer to dismiss one or more of the charges if the defendant will plead to the others. For example, a defendant facing a DUI charge on top of driving without a license and without insurance may take a plea deal to settle for the DUI conviction if the other two charges are dropped.
Sentence bargains. Defendants often care deeply about the potential prison sentence they may receive from a judge, so prosecutors sometimes offer to recommend that the judge hands down a lesser sentence or no sentence at all if the defendant will plead guilty or “no contest.”
Fact bargains. With this kind of deal, the prosecution offers to omit certain facts about the case in order to reduce punishment that would kick in with factors such as mandatory sentencing guidelines. For instance, if a defendant is facing felony drug possession for having 1.2 lbs of marijuana in Utah, the prosecutor may offer to reduce this to a misdemeanor charge if the defendant pleads guilty to possessing less than one pound.
Generally speaking, plea bargaining can happen at any time during the criminal justice process. It can start shortly after an arrest is made, or as late as an appeal hearing after conviction and sentencing have taken place.
Plea bargaining is extremely common, with well over 90% of criminal convictions coming from guilty pleas as a result of deals with the prosecutor. Like them or not, plea bargains are an essential part of the American legal system.