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A Brief Overview of the Pros and Cons of Plea Bargaining

Sonia Nair Jun 16, 2019
Plea bargaining is a legal provision which has long been criticized for surpassing the jury trial system that guarantees some rights to the defendants. Read through for a brief insight into this topic.
In the United States, the practice of plea bargain is so rampant that almost 90% of criminal convictions are based on such negotiations. As the name suggests, this legal provision involves negotiation that happens between prosecutors and defendants, wherein the latter agree to plead guilty in return for concessions from the former.
According to the Black's law dictionary, plea bargain is defined as: "The process whereby the accused and the prosecutor in a criminal case work out a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case subject to court approval...
...It usually involves the defendant's pleading guilty to a lesser offense or to only one or some of the counts of a multi-count indictment in return for a lighter sentence than that possible for the graver charge."
So, plea bargaining is like a mutual agreement, wherein both parties derive some benefits. It can happen in different forms, the most common being charge bargaining. In this case, the prosecution may agree to drop serious charges if the defendant agrees to plead guilty for a less severe charge.
For example, the prosecution may agree to drop charges for aggravated assault, if defendant is ready to plead guilty for assault. Another form is sentence bargaining, where the defendant agrees to plead guilty for a less severe sentence. In some rare cases, defendants may agree to confess to certain facts if prosecution agrees to withhold some facts.
Known as fact bargaining, this practice is not so common. These are some of the basic forms of plea bargaining, which can be advantageous as well as disadvantageous at the same time.

Plea Bargaining - A Brief Overview

A criminal trial may take a few months or even some years to reach a verdict, whereas the plea bargaining process takes very less time. So, it is definitely a speedier process, when compared to the lengthy criminal trial.
With the increasing number of criminal cases, it is always better for the prosecution to wrap up cases, so as to manage the pending overload. In fact, plea bargain has emerged as an effective solution for pending criminal cases and overcrowded jails.

Most of the criminal cases are resolved through plea bargain before they reach the trial stage. While plea bargaining is not allowed in some cases, the prosecutor may also refrain from offering such deals. If the statute provides for a mandatory minimum sentence, the prosecutor will not offer a lesser sentence.
The defendant is free not to choose the option. Rules 11(c)(1)(B) and 11(c)(1)(C) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure deals with plea bargaining. According to rule 11(c)(1)(B), the court is not bound to the plea agreement, and the defendant cannot withdraw his plea. However, the court is bound to a plea agreement under rule 11(c)(1)(C) if accepted.
The court can reject the same, in case of disagreement with regard to the proposed sentence. In that case, the defendant can withdraw his plea. The state rules may vary from one state to another. The prosecutor can never force the court to accept the plea agreement. It is always the court's discretion.
Negotiation happens between the defendant (and his counsel) and the prosecutor. Usually, judges are not involved in plea bargaining. Only if an agreement is reached between the parties, the prosecutor can request before court to accept the plea agreement. The court will examine facts that prove the charges for which the defendant is pleading guilty.
Apart from that, the court ensures that the defendant knows that he has waived his/her constitutional right to trial through plea bargaining, which has to be voluntary. Once the court is satisfied with its findings, it will accept the prosecutor's request. However, the court may also reject the request.

Pros and Cons

From the Defendant's Point of View: As the defendant is required to plead guilty in court, conviction is certain. Even though the court accepts the plea agreement, the defendant has to undergo the sentence. Yet, plea bargaining is highly popular. Given are some pros and cons of plea bargaining for the defendant.

Less Severe Charges

In case of charge bargaining, the prosecutor may drop more severe charges if the defendant agrees to plead guilty for a less severe one. Unlike a trial, plea bargaining results in some sort of certainty about the outcome of the case.

Lenient Sentence

Less severe charges cause reduced sentence. The severity of punishment gets less with less severe charges. While a first-degree murder fetches death penalty or life in prison without parole; voluntary manslaughter is punished with imprisonment for 3 to 15 years or more. Pleading guilty for manslaughter is better than undergoing trial for first-degree murder.

Time and Cost

As mentioned, criminal trials can take long, and plea bargaining saves time and resources. A lengthy trial can be expensive too. The charges levied by the attorney can be exorbitant.

Waiver of Rights

If a defendant pleads guilty, he relinquishes his constitutional right to jury trial, right to confront hostile witnesses, and right against self-incrimination. However, it has been held that the provision is not unconstitutional if the plea is made voluntarily, fully knowing the consequences.

Guaranteed Conviction

In case of plea bargaining, conviction is certain, even if the defendant is innocent. In some cases, innocent people may plead guilty to avoid a lengthy trial or fearing the maximum sentence if he/she loses the case.

Plea Can be Rejected

The court is not bound to accept the plea agreement, and the request made by the prosecutor is only advisory. The judge has the discretion to reject the plea. The prosecutor may also retract from his promise.

No Scope for Appeal

Usually, the defendant cannot retract his plea once he/she agrees to plea guilty and signs the plea agreement. However, with more and more cases being decided on the basis of plea bargaining, plea agreements are now considered as contracts between defendants and prosecutors.
If the defendant does not plead guilty, the prosecutor is not required to adhere to the plea agreement. If the prosecutor refrains to follow the plea agreement, the court can force the prosecutor to do the same.

Social Stigma

Once a defendant pleads guilty, it means he has confessed of being guilty. Such confession may attract a greater degree of social stigma compared to a court decision. As in case of a conviction after proper trial, a defendant who pleads guilty will be convicted. He will have a criminal record that is accessible to the public, including potential employers.

Plea Bargaining Can be Coercive

Though plea bargaining is very common, it is also controversial. According to the opponents of this provision, innocents plead guilty due to fear of severe punishment. They may agree for a plea agreement and settle for a less severe sentence. Another major concern is the role of prosecution in making a defendant agree to plead guilty.
There are chances of manipulation and coercion. From the prosecutor's point of view, the main advantage of plea bargaining is guaranteed convictions, which is a matter of credit. With the increasing number of plea bargains, the prosecutor enjoys the credit of processing maximum number of cases in a short period of time. This reduces the pending overload too.
In short, plea bargaining is beneficial for the prosecution in many ways. The decision of the defendant (to plead guilty) has to be voluntary. However, he/she can be lured with a less severe punishment rather than undergoing the lengthy trial, which may result in a maximum possible sentence.
It has been suggested that the prosecution initiates plea bargaining in cases where conviction is almost impossible with the evidence in hand. By making the defendant agree to plea bargaining, the prosecution can guarantee conviction. In such a case, the defendant would have been acquitted for lack of evidence if he had chosen to go for trial.
Other area of concern is prosecutorial discretion in plea bargaining. Factors like age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, play a major role in receiving a reduced charge from the prosecution. This affects the outcome of the case. It has also been contented that lack of preparation from prosecution is one reason why latter initiates plea bargaining.
To conclude, plea bargaining is a provision that is beneficial in various ways. It is advantageous for those who are guilty, as they can settle with a lesser sentence without undergoing the trial. Though it sounds simple, plea bargaining is actually a complex phenomenon.
This kind of negotiation requires skill and expertise to understand the various aspects of the charges, evidence, as well as the scope of sentencing. So, anybody contemplating the option of plea bargaining must hire an experienced attorney and follow his advice.