You’ve been charged with burglary. You’ve hired a defense lawyer, and you’re preparing yourself for trial. If things don’t go your way, you could end up in jail. Suddenly, the prosecutor for your case offers you a deal. What does this mean, and should you accept?

What is a plea bargain?

Plea bargaining is an extremely widely used tool in the American legal system. It is an opportunity to avoid a trial altogether by instead making a deal directly with the prosecution. You plead guilty in exchange for some concession on the prosecution’s side.

Using our example above, a plea bargain usually plays out like this: If you get charged with burglary, the prosecution might offer you a deal to plead guilty to the less serious crime of trespassing. In exchange, they will drop the burglary charges against you.

A less common plea bargaining scenario involves a deal over the sentencing itself. In this instance, you would plead guilty to the full burglary charge with the caveat that you receive a lighter sentence. Note that this type of plea bargaining is not allowed in all jurisdictions, and such a deal would require a judge’s approval.

Should I take the deal?

Accepting a plea bargain is always a difficult decision, because it always involves pleading guilty—meaning you lose the chance to walk away free from conviction. If you have not committed the crime you’re accused of, it can be especially tricky to justify pleading guilty. Regardless of your situation, there are some considerations you should always factor into your decision:

  • What are my chances of winning in a trial? If there is serious evidence stacked against you, consider how likely you and your lawyer would be to disprove it.
  • What could I stand to gain by taking the deal? Compare the penalties you would face by accepting the plea bargain compared to the penalties if you lost your case. Weigh the pros and cons of what you could lose compared to what you could gain in any outcome.
  • How would accepting the deal impact me over the long run? Understand the full implications of pleading guilty. For instance, if accepting the deal meant permanently forfeiting your medical license, you might not be as willing to take the deal than if you only had to pay a fine.

Ultimately, the decision of whether to accept a plea bargain has to come from you. However, it is always a good idea to discuss the above factors—and the relative strengths and weaknesses of your case—with your lawyer.