According to a study conducted by the American Bar Association, plea bargaining has increasingly become the predominant method for resolving criminal cases in the United States, accounting for as many as 98% of all convictions. While plea bargaining can be seen by some as a way of reducing the caseload for the country’s criminal justice system, others criticize this method and claim that it is unfair and lacks transparency. So, what should you do if you are charged with a crime and offered a plea agreement? Our attorneys explain how plea agreements work, their advantages and disadvantages, and what you should consider before deciding to accept a plea deal or take your chances by going to trial.
What Is a Plea Agreement?
A plea agreement is a negotiation between a defendant and a prosecutor in a criminal case, usually facilitated by the defendant’s attorney. In a plea agreement or plea bargain deal, the defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest to the charge(s). In exchange for pleading guilty, the defendant may receive a lesser charge or a more lenient sentence than they would likely be given if the case were to go to trial. It is essentially a compromise between the two parties. The plea agreement must be approved by the judge, who may question the defendant to make sure the defendant understands the agreement and that they accepted it voluntarily.
For example, if a defendant is charged with a felony, a plea agreement might reduce the charge to a misdemeanor or allow for probation instead of jail time. A plea agreement may also allow the defendant to receive a reduced sentence for a guilty plea on more serious charges. For example, in a murder case, a plea agreement might reduce the charge to manslaughter and allow for a much lighter sentence than what would be given for a conviction of murder, potentially allowing the defendant to avoid receiving the maximum sentence for their offense.
What Are the Advantages of a Plea Agreement?
There are a few advantages associated with plea agreements. One of the main advantages is that a plea agreement can potentially reduce the sentence a defendant would receive if the case went to trial. This can be particularly beneficial to defendants who are facing serious charges that are almost always accompanied by lengthy jail sentences. Additionally, plea agreements can provide certainty for both the defendant and the prosecution since the defendant will know exactly what sentence they are going to receive, and the prosecution knows they will get a conviction without risking the outcome of a trial.
Trials can take a long time and cost a lot of money, so by negotiating a plea agreement, the case can be resolved in less time and using fewer resources. Plea agreements can also be used as a way of getting a defendant to cooperate with the prosecution in other cases, such as by providing testimony or evidence against other suspects in exchange for a more lenient sentence.
What Are the Disadvantages of a Plea Agreement?
One of the main disadvantages of plea agreements is that they limit the defendant’s right to a trial. This means that the defendant cannot present evidence that could potentially lead to an acquittal. When you accept a plea deal, you are pleading guilty and will likely end up with a criminal conviction without going to trial, meaning you will have zero chances of being found innocent or not guilty of your charges. This can often lead to wrongful convictions, especially when the defendant feels pressured to accept the plea agreement.
Being pressured into a plea deal can be especially problematic in cases where the defendant does not have a strong legal defense and is unable to make a compelling case for innocence because they believe they cannot afford the legal fees required to build an effective defense strategy. Plea bargain agreements have also been criticized by some who believe they have a negative impact on the criminal justice system – instead of focusing on preparing for a trial, prosecutors and the defense shift their focus to negotiating plea deals rather than securing the proper verdict for a case.
Should I Take a Plea Agreement or Go to Trial?
Making the decision of taking a plea agreement versus going to trial is something only the defendant can do. Each case is unique, but what is true for every case is that by entering into a plea agreement, you are waiving your constitutional rights to a trial. In addition, you will almost always end up receiving some type of sentence by accepting a plea deal. If there is any chance that you are innocent, a plea bargain deal may not be the best choice as it hinges on the fact that the defendant has accepted to plead guilty or no contest to the charges presented by the prosecution.
If you go to trial, you may have to deal with the uncertainty of whether you will be found guilty or not guilty, which proves to be too much for many defendants. However, if you are found not guilty, you will be able to move on with your life without having a criminal record or a sentence to serve. It is crucial to work with a criminal defense attorney who can advise you on whether you should take a plea deal or take your chances and go to trial, but ultimately, the decision is yours. If you are facing criminal charges in Virginia, The Law Office of Scott C. Nolan, PLLC, is here to help. Contact us at 703-688-9236.