A plea deal, also known as a plea bargain, is an agreement between a prosecutor and a defendant.
The agreement is for a defendant to plead “no contest” or guilty to charges in exchange for one of the following actions from a prosecutor:
- Recommend a specific sentencing guideline to a judge
- Reduce a charge to a lesser offense
- Drop one or several charges
More than 90 percent of all criminal convictions occur because of plea deals. Because the vast majority of criminal cases come from plea negotiations, it is important to understand how the process works.
How and when plea deals are made
The choice to negotiate a plea hinges on the following factors:
- The validity of evidence
- The severity of the crime
- The likelihood of a guilty verdict
Plea negotiations can occur at almost any step of the criminal process, from shortly after an arrest to when a trial ends in a hung injury.
Bad plea deals
Just like any deal, not every plea bargain is good for a defendant. Some prosecutors intimidate defendants and use the pressure of severe charges to coax innocent people into entering a plea deal. This is especially common for low-income defendants who do not have the means to go through costly and lengthy trials.
The result of every plea deal is a criminal conviction. This establishes the guilt of a defendant just as if the defendant went through a trial. A defendant who pleads guilty will have the conviction on his or her criminal record. This may result in losses of certain rights and privileges, including the right to vote. Some innocent defendants who decide to plead guilty do not understand the gravity of that decision. However, defendants are sometimes able to expunge or seal the criminal record.
Whenever someone faces criminal charges, it is vital to weigh all options to determine what is best.