A staple of the criminal justice system is the option that a prosecutor will make to those charged with a crime: avoid a trial, plead guilty to a lesser offense and continue on with your life or risk it all going to trial and getting a harsher sentence. But why do prosecutors make these offers? Are they in your best interest, and most importantly, should you take it?
What Is a Plea Bargain?
A plea bargain is an agreement between a defendant charged with a criminal act and a prosecutor in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest to the charges in exchange for an agreement by the prosecutor to drop one or more charges, reduce a charge to a less serious offense, or recommend to the judge a specific sentence, usually lesser in severity or one more advantageous to the defendant. While plea agreements are subject to the judge’s approval, most judges agree to sign off on plea agreements. This is because it would be physically impossible for the justice system anywhere in the nation, North Carolina or otherwise, to hear every single criminal case in a full trial setting. That’s why negotiated guilty pleas or plea bargains account for more than 94 percent of all criminal convictions in the United States according to The New York Times.
Why Do Defendants Agree to Plea Bargains?
There are a number of reasons that both sides, defendant and prosecution, may be interested in forgoing a formal trial and come to a plea agreement.
Defendants can avoid the time and cost of defending themselves at a trial. While trials for most criminal prosecutions may only last a few days, waiting for a trial to begin can often go on for months at a time before the case is heard. A plea bargain can eliminate those delays. Going to trial rather than agreeing to a plea bargain also runs the risk of receiving a harsher punishment. Defendants can get a lighter sentence or reduced charge and prevent harsher penalties for future criminal arrests. It may also avoid jail time by getting a defendant a suspended sentence or probation. There is also negative publicity associated with an individual going to a criminal trial.
Why Do Prosecutors Offer Plea Bargains?
Prosecutors save themselves and the government the time and expense of a potentially lengthy trial by offering plea bargains. Trials are expensive affairs. Hundreds of hours have to be put into collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses and preparing for the trial itself. The trial may last days, weeks and even months depending on the complexity of the case.
Both sides also have the incentive to reach an agreement before trial due to the uncertainty of how a jury will decide a defendant’s guilt. It is risky for a defendant even in the most certain of situations to gamble on how six to twelve individuals will decide possibly the rest of a person’s life. It is also risky to the prosecution to dedicate valuable time and resources to a case that may not ultimately result in a conviction.
How Do I Get a Plea Bargain?
Either side in a criminal case may begin negotiations over a proposed plea bargain. A defense attorney may indicate to the prosecution that the defendant is willing to plead guilty in order to obtain a lesser sentence, or a prosecutor may approach the defendant’s attorney with an offer to drop charges in exchange for a recommendation for a lighter sentence. There is no set way to get a plea bargain. It is largely an informal process done outside of a courtroom behind closed doors, with the details of such an agreement not coming to light until after the defendant has agreed to the plea bargain and the judge has approved it.
Should I say ‘No’ to a Plea Bargain?
Despite the advantages that a plea bargain may offer to a person, there are definite situations where a person should say no to a plea bargain. Ultimately, whether or not a person should agree to a plea bargain comes down to the individual’s situation and wants. However, there are certain situations where a person may be inclined to say no to a plea bargain or it would be to their legal detriment to agree to one.
The most obvious example of where a plea bargain would be of a detriment to a person is in a situation where the person accused of a crime is innocent. Unfortunately, innocent people are accused of crimes. An innocent person should not feel pressured to take a plea agreement rather than attempt to prove their innocence.
A person waives certain legal rights when accepting a plea bargain. People who accept plea bargains give up their right to a trial, protection against self-incrimination and the right to confront accusers. It also affects a person’s ability to appeal your conviction in the future, even if new evidence may vindicate the convicted person.
Pleading to even a lesser offense still goes on a person’s criminal record. Criminal records can affect a person’s life in tremendously negative ways, in housing, employment and social status. A person with a criminal record is also normally treated more harshly if ever convicted of a crime in the future.
Call a Charlotte, North Carolina Criminal Defense Attorney
Whether or not you should agree to a plea bargain is ultimately your decision. There is no right or wrong decision when it comes to accepting a plea bargain. However, you can benefit from the guidance of an experienced Charlotte criminal defense attorney with weighing the pros and cons of a proposed plea bargain, and whether or not you should take the offer on the table. The decision will always be up to you, but you should receive all the necessary information on the ramifications of such a decision.
The criminal defense lawyers at Remington & Dixon, PLLC in Charlotte, North Carolina can offer you the guidance that only comes through tried and true years of experience of defending those charged with criminal acts. Plea bargains may adversely affect your rights, no matter how many benefits that may or may not offer you. Make sure to have someone you can trust by your side to help you make your decision. For a free consultation, call us today or contact us online.
Brandon double-majored in Political Science and Criminal Justice at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He earned his Juris Doctor from Barry University School of Law in Orlando, Florida. Throughout his career, Brandon has received numerous awards and recognition from his peers and agencies that rate attorneys. A few of these awards are from The National Trial Lawyers: Top 100 Trial Lawyer in 2014, The National Trial Lawyers: Top 40 Under 40 in 2014, Nation’s Top One Percent: National Association of Distinguished Counsel in 2015, Super Lawyers: Rising Stars in 2018 and 2019, and North Carolina Business Magazine: Legal Elite in 2019, among others.