Tackling the criminal justice system can be intimidating, especially for those facing it for the first time. From the moment you are arrested, it is easy to feel powerless and out of control, with things moving around you, happening to you, and people talking at you. In the chaos, it can be easy to cling onto what seems an easy solution and to simply accept the advice you are given by police and judges, in an attempt to gain order in a crazy situation.
In some cases, you may find yourself being offered a plea bargain by the prosecutor, and this can appear very tempting. Depending on the nature of the deal, you could be offered a reduced sentence or minimal charges or, in some cases, charges being dropped altogether. The terms of the deal will be explained by your criminal defense lawyer. While this may seem the answer to your prayers, it is important that you fully understand what you agree to before making any negotiations.
What Is A Plea Bargain?
As the name suggests, a plea bargain refers to a deal made between the accused and the legal system. In most cases, you will plead guilty to one charge and receive a reward in the form of reduced charges or sentencing.
Pennsylvania offers two main types of plea bargains:
- Charge bargains are the most common option and take place between the prosecutor and the defense, away from the judge in charge of overseeing the case. In these options, the defendant is given a choice to plead either guilty or no contest to a lower charge, in exchange for a more serious charge being dropped. A common example occurs when a defendant pleads guilty to manslaughter, rather than face a jury in a murder trial. The only part a judge plays in a charge bargain is to officially dismiss the charge or charges as agreed.
- Sentence bargaining is less common and requires stricter levels of control. This allows a defendant to receive a reduced sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. In most cases, the judge will agree to a sentence plea without the need for advanced verbal confirmation, but this is not always the case. On rare occasions, the judge will still choose to impose a harsh sentence, regardless of a plea bargain. The defendant does have the right to withdraw their guilty plea if this situation occurs.
What Are The Benefits Of A Plea Bargain?
It is easy to see why a plea bargain can be tempting, and there are a range of advantages to accepting a negotiation.
- A more certain outcome. In many cases, a plea bargain will eliminate the need to endure a trial in front of a jury, followed by a long wait for their verdict. By taking a plea bargain, the defendant knows what is ahead and can prepare for a certain punishment, rather than wait for an unknown outcome.
- Reduced costs. In many situations, a plea bargain will shorten the length of a case, helping to save the defendant perhaps thousands of dollars in legal fees if the trial were to drag on.
- Improved chance of a beneficial sentence. In most scenarios, those who accept a plea bargain will find themselves with a lesser sentence than those who choose to go to court and are found guilty. In addition, most defendants who accept a plea bargain avoid the maximum sentencing, which can be handed down if they are unsuccessful in court. Instead, judges can acknowledge their plea bargain with a reduced sentence.
- Frees up the court. As well as offering benefits for the defendant, plea bargains are also welcomed by the legal system, as they help to free up the prosecutor’s caseloads and save valuable court time.
What Are The Downsides?
As you can see, a plea bargain can be hugely beneficial to many defendants – but they should still be considered carefully. Despite the positives, there are some disadvantages which come with taking a deal.
- You will have a conviction on your record. Accepting a plea bargain means you are pleading guilty, admitting to the crime, and taking your punishment. As a result of your decision, the conviction will be listed on your criminal record, and this can seriously impact your future. You may have trouble getting or keeping your job, accessing colleges and education, or gaining financial support.
- You might win in court. Though many prosecutors spin a plea bargain as being in your best interests, this can be a bluff; many plea bargains are offered because the prosecution team is aware that the case may not hold up in court. If the evidence is thin, the circumstances right, and your defense team strong, there is every chance you could walk away as a free agent – this is a losing point for the prosecution. By getting you to accept a plea bargain, they can notch a victory on the score sheet – but at your expense.
- It can be expensive. While penalties and sentences are usually reduced if you accept a plea bargain, you can still face heavy fines and financial obligations. This can be detrimental to your future and can make it tough to rebuild and start over; all factors which could be avoided if you were found not guilty in court.
- You lose your right to appeal. Just because your sentence may be reduced, doesn’t automatically mean that it will be fair, or that your case was handled properly. By accepting a plea deal, you lose your right to appeal the sentence, and this can mean that you lose out twice.
So What Should I Do?
Ultimately, the decision as to whether to accept a plea bargain lies with you. Your attorney will work with you based on the unique facts of your case, and can advise you on the best course of action, as well as the potential long-term consequences of each decision.
Here at R. Davis Younts, Esq, we have advised defendants across Pennsylvania on their next steps, and can help you to make the right decision for you. Get in touch, and see how we can help.