Plea Bargains Pros and Cons: The Benefits and Drawbacks of Plea Bargains in Criminal Cases

The criminal justice system is complex.  It involves constitutional law, statutory law, and common law, all wrapped in an additional layer of often head-scratching rules of procedure and regulation.  The goal is to achieve fairness and justice for all, but sometimes it falls short.  One important piece of the system that often gets overlooked is the importance of plea bargains.  Plea bargains are the process where the prosecution and the defense negotiate an outcome to a case between themselves.  Often this means that the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a more lenient sentence than he or she likely would receive if they took the case to trial and lost.  It may also give the defendant the option to plead guilty to a less serious charge than the one they were initially facing.  The practice provides many benefits but also raises concerns about fairness and the impact that it has on justice overall. 

Image of lady justice holding the scales

Importantly, the process is not at all uncommon.  The American Bar Association writes that nearly 98% of all criminal cases in the United States resolve with plea bargains.  Because of how common the practice is, it is important to understand both the benefits and the drawbacks to the plea bargaining system.

The Pros of Plea Bargains:

1. It saves time and money

One of the biggest advantages of the system is that it is a huge time and money saver.  Resolving cases with pleas greatly streamlines the justice system and allows it to handle far more cases than would ever be possible if most cases went to trial.  Trials are expensive and lengthy, with even a relatively minor and simple case typically taking at least a full day.  Because the court systems are already overstretched, plea bargains are an important part of keeping the system functioning.

2. Certainty

Another big advantage of plea bargains is that they remove the uncertainty involved with taking a case to trial.  Juries are unpredictable, and any experienced trial attorney will tell you that no case – no matter how strong – is ever a sure win at trial.  Defendants who accept plea bargains know exactly how their case will resolve and what it will entail.  This can be a very big benefit to defendants who are facing significant sentences, or for those who are able to negotiate their way out of certain consequences.  And of course, that sentence will almost certainly be more favorable to the defendant than the outcome of taking the case to trial and losing.

3. Quick Resolutions

Cases that resolve by plea bargain often move through the system far quicker than cases that go to trial.  This is beneficial to the court system because it frees up resources for other cases.  It is beneficial to the prosecutor’s office for the same reason.  And it is especially beneficial to people accused of committing crimes, since it reduces the time they spend with the stress and stigma of having a pending criminal case and allows them to move on with their lives more quickly.  For people unable to make bail, it is even more important because it may mean getting out of jail sooner. 

4. Information

Sometimes plea bargains can include an agreement by the defendant to provide information or testimony in other higher-priority cases.  This information can be a valuable and powerful tool for law enforcement.  This obviously involves some risk on the part of the defendant, but under the right circumstances a defendant might greatly reduce the impact of their case by providing valuable information to the authorities.  This benefits the defendant, of course, but is also an important assistance to the criminal justice system as it seeks to reduce criminal behavior.

The Cons of Plea Bargains:

1. Coercion

Probably the biggest single issue with plea bargains is that it creates an opportunity for those accused of crimes to feel pressured into taking a deal even if they believe they are innocent.  Imagine the pressure on someone who is facing the possibility of a very significant sentence but is given the option of a much lighter consequence in exchange for pleading guilty.  Even someone who is convinced of their innocence would likely feel tempted to take a deal, especially if their attorney is telling them that their case is not strong and winning at trial is unlikely.  Plea bargaining therefore greatly increases the risk of innocent people being convicted of crimes they did not commit.

2. Too Much Power for Prosecutors

The decision to offer a plea bargain, and the specific details of what that offer includes, is almost entirely within the discretion of the prosecutor.  The judge usually has no ability to force a plea offer or to influence the specifics of the offer.  But prosecutors already have the sole authority to decide who gets charged with what crimes.  Giving them the ability to 1) decide who gets charged; and 2) decide who gets plea offers and what those offers are, places a tremendous amount of power in the hands of one person.

3. Unequal Access

Plea bargaining unfortunately is not uniform.  Because the decision to offer a plea bargain is entirely up to the prosecutor, offers can vary between prosecution offices and even among prosecutors who work in the same office.  This means that two individuals, accused of committing the same crime under the same circumstances, may receive vastly different plea offers.  Because our system promises “Equal Justice for All”, this is a significant problem.

4. Disparities

Plea offers are often made by the prosecutor early in the process.  That initial offer may evolve as the parties discuss the case and explore the evidence.  As this process goes on, weaknesses in the prosecutor’s case may start to appear.  This may cause the prosecutor to provide an updated, more favorable plea offer.  But this process only works if the defendant is represented by a skilled attorney who can evaluate the evidence and point out flaws in the prosecutor’s case.  Individuals who cannot afford to hire an experienced lawyer may find themselves “stuck” with the prosecutor’s initial offer, even though their case may call for a more generous offer.  This can cause significant disparities which disproportionately impact already marginalized groups.

Summing it up:

Overall, I still believe that plea bargaining is a good thing.  When done right, it promotes efficiency and fairness.  But when done wrong, it can cause very real damage and result in injustices.  The best solution is for everyone accused of a crime to be represented by a skilled, experienced defense attorney who knows how to evaluate their case and negotiate the best possible outcome.  If you’ve been accused of a crime, I offer a free no hassle consultation.  Call me so that we can discuss your case and how I can help you make sure you obtain the best possible outcome.

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