Most criminal cases conclude in plea bargains, sometimes known as negotiated pleas or just “deals.” 

A plea bargain is an agreement between a defendant and a prosecutor in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty or “no contest” in exchange for the prosecutor’s agreeing to drop one or more charges, reduce a charge to a less serious offence, or recommend a specific sentence acceptable to the defence to the judge.

Prosecutors and judges are under growing pressure to get cases thru the criminal justice system as quickly as possible as the system becomes increasingly clogged. Criminal trials can last days, weeks, or even months, even tho guilty pleas are frequently obtained in minutes. 

Furthermore, the conclusion of each trial is almost always unknown. On the other hand, a plea bargain allows both the prosecution and the defence some control over the outcome, which both parties should be able to live with.

Plea bargaining is quite popular for these and other reasons, despite its numerous detractors. Negotiated pleas account for more than 90% of convictions, implying that less than 10% of criminal cases proceed to trial. 

Even tho some pundits still see plea agreements as secret, backroom deals that go against the people’s will, the federal government and several states have written laws that specify how plea bargains can be negotiated and accepted by the court.

The State of California’s Experience with Plea Bargaining Bans in Specific Cases

California voters approved Proposition 8 in 1982. It prohibited plea bargaining when the “information” (the document that formally charges a defendant with a crime and is issued after a preliminary hearing) or indictment (the charging document issued by a grand jury) charged a serious felony, certain violent sex crimes, any felony in which the defendant used a gun, or any offence of driving while under the influence (California Penal Code 1192.7). There were only three exceptions to the law: negotiating might take place when:

  • The people’s case is unproven due to a lack of proof.
  • If a material witness’s evidence cannot be obtained, or if the testimony of a material witness cannot be accepted,
  • A reduction or dismissal would not significantly alter the sentence.

Even when the exceptions didn’t apply, cases were nonetheless discussed and pleaded for—how so? The law only applies to charges in the information or indictment; thus, bargaining before that, such as after arraignment, before the preliminary hearing, or during a grand jury inquiry, is not prohibited. During these occasions, prosecutors and defence attorneys negotiate.

Frequently, the transaction suffers due to both parties’ lack of information, which prevents them from making informed offers and acceptances. And sometimes, after the matter has been bound over for trial, new information may urge either party to seek a negotiated plea—but it’s too late. Critics of the plea bargain ban have pushed for its repeal, claiming that it results from the public’s emotional response to crime.

Bargaining on Charges and Sentences

Plea negotiating is commonly divided into two forms by lawyers and judges: sentence bargaining and charge bargaining. (However, plea bargaining can be divided into other groups.)

Sentence negotiating is a type of plea bargaining in which the prosecutor agrees to propose a lesser sentence if the defendant pleads guilty or has no contest to particular counts. Charge bargaining is a procedure in which prosecutors agree to remove some charges or lower a charge to a less serious offence in exchange for the defendant’s guilty plea.

When Do Plea Bargains Get Agreed Upon?

Plea bargaining can occur at nearly any step of the criminal justice process in most jurisdictions and courthouses (but see the California exception, explained above).

Plea bargains can be reached soon after a defendant is arrested and before criminal charges are filed. Plea bargaining could result in a jury returning to the courtroom to announce its verdict. If a jury is hung after a trial, the jurors are split and unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

The prosecution and defence can (and commonly do) negotiate a plea rather than go thru another trial. Additionally, plea bargains are sometimes negotiated after a defendant is convicted and the case is still pending appeal.

Your criminal record’s consequences

A guilty or no-contest plea accepted as part of a judge-approved plea deal results in a criminal conviction; the defendant’s guilt is established in the same way it would be in a trial. The defendant’s conviction will be recorded on his or her criminal record (rap sheet). 

In addition, the defendant forfeits all rights or privileges that he or she would lose if convicted after a trial, such as the right to vote. However, depending on the nature of the conviction. The criminal record may be sealed or deleted by the defendant’s prior dealings with the law.

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