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The Pros and Cons of Plea Bargaining

The Pros and Cons of Plea Bargaining

Did you know that 90% of all court cases never actually make it to court but instead are settled with some form of a plea bargain? Of course, we all hope that we never get in trouble with the law. Personally, I do my best to follow laws and regulations because I do not want tickets or, even worse, jail time. However, sometimes one may cross the line in one way or another and can find themselves brought to court and having to face the consequences of their actions. If you or someone you know falls into this situation, you may be wondering what are the pros and cons of plea bargaining?

Plea bargaining is an option that is often offered to a defendant who is facing trial. This means that instead of letting the trial proceed and presenting the case to the judge and sometimes even the jury, the defendant will admit their fault and take a lessened punishment than the most likely outcome of the trial.

There are various types of plea bargaining, such as charge bargaining, count bargaining, fact bargaining, and sentence bargaining. Of course, as with most things, there are pros and cons to plea bargaining. The pros include avoiding severe charges, receiving a lighter sentence, a quicker resolution, less anxiety, more control over your outcome, reduced expenses, fewer prisoners in already overcrowded facilities, and not missing as much time from work or other daily responsibilities.

There are advantages for the court as well; greater efficiency of the court, less time spent on the case, and less staff needed to come to a resolution. The cons include loss of Constitutional rights such as a right to a jury, lost opportunity to beat the charge and receive a not guilty verdict, possibility of an innocent person pleading guilty to avoid fees or a heavier sentence, and accepting a plea bargain usually removes the right to an appeal.

What Is Plea Bargaining?

What Is Plea Bargaining?

A plea bargain is the option to plead guilty to some or all of the charges that have been brought against you outside of court. When this happens the expectation is that the defendant will get a sentence that is somehow lesser than the most likely outcome if the case goes to trial. It is often offered and most likely to be the route taken when the court has a very strong case against the defendant, so the defendant feels like they are getting a best-case scenario by accepting the eased terms. The terms of the arrangement must be agreed upon by both the prosecutor and the defendant, and then accepted by the judge.

What Are the Pros of a Plea Bargain?

There are various reasons that you would prefer to accept a plea bargain instead of going to court, including:

  • Ease of anxiety awaiting the unknown outcome of a trial
  • Avoiding more severe charges
  • Receiving a lighter sentence
  • Avoiding the hassle of a trial
  • Not missing as much time from work or other daily responsibilities
  • Avoiding travel requirements to court
  • A quicker resolution to the situation
  • Reduced expenses such as court and attorney fees

There are also pros for the court, such as

  • A quick resolution to the trial
  • Not needing as much staff, ie judge, clerks, prosecutors, security, etc, to be available for a trial
  • Increased efficiency of the courts
  • Fewer prisoners in already overcrowded institutions
  • Some plea bargains include requiring the defendant to testify against other defendants associated with the same crime, making the other case easier for the prosecutors

As you can see, there are many reasons that a plea bargain can be beneficial for both the defendant and the court system.

What Are the Cons of a Plea Bargain?

What Are the Cons of a Plea Bargain?

As usual, there will be a downside to any choice. With plea bargains, the disadvantages seem to only apply to the defendant. Some of the cons for the defendant include:

  • Loss of using Constitutional rights, such as the right to a jury, to not self-incriminate, or to question witnesses
  • Lost possibility to come away with a “not guilty” verdict
  • Lost opportunity to object to some of the evidence presented against you
  • Almost every plea bargain requires a “guilty” or “no contest” verdict
  • An innocent defendant may take a bargain to avoid the risk
  • An innocent defendant may take a plea bargain simply because they cannot afford decent representation
  • Usually taking a plea bargain removes the option of an appeal later on

Deciding to take a plea bargain may not always be the best choice, so it is very important to discuss your options with your representation to understand if this is the best choice for you. Only an experienced, skilled professional can look at the entire picture for your individual circumstances and decide the best odds and course of action.

What Are the Different Types of Plea Bargaining?

There are four different types of plea bargaining that may be available to the defendant. These are charge bargaining, count bargaining, sentence bargaining, and fact bargaining. The past criminal history and how grave the current charges are will determine which types of bargains will be available to the defendant.

Charge bargaining is accepting a lesser charge by making a plea of guilty. Commonly, the severity of the charge is decreased, for example, a felony becomes a misdemeanor, which can lower the minimum sentence requirements and may remove implications on civil rights, such as the ability to own a firearm.

Another type of bargaining is called count bargaining. This would apply when a defendant has multiple charges pending against them; the plea deal would decrease the number of charges.

Fact bargaining happens when the prosecutor agrees to a certain account of facts which may result in a less severe sentence.

Sentence bargaining relates to agreeing to a certain sentence, or punishment, as the outcome of a guilty plea. This is beneficial because most charges have a wide range of possible outcomes. If the defendant takes this route, they most likely will receive punishment on the low end of this range, such as no jail time and a fine for less severe crimes or less time imprisoned for more extreme crimes.

Occasionally the prosecution and defense cannot quite agree upon a plea bargain. This may result in what is known as a sentencing cap. They will present the almost finished agreement to the judge and then explain the part that they cannot agree upon. The judge will then make the final determination. For example, the parties may both agree that the defendant must spend at least one year in jail but cannot decide the maximum time. Each side will present its position and the outcome they desire to the judge who then makes the final decision.

Is Plea Bargaining Fair to the Victim?

Although quite common, plea bargaining does not go without criticism. There are many who are opposed to plea bargaining, saying that it is unfair to the victim of the crimes committed. Many feel that plea bargaining allows the defendant to “get off easy” and not face the punishment that they deserve.

However, there are also benefits for the victims when a plea bargain is struck. For one, the victim absolutely gets some form of retribution. The chance of the defendant walking away with a “not guilty” verdict is eliminated, which can be a relief to the victim. Furthermore, when a plea bargain is struck, the victim is not required to testify in court. Some victims dread this aspect of a trial and feel immense relief when they do not have to talk about the circumstances in front of an audience. It can be difficult to relive the details of some cases.

Famous Plea Bargaining Cases

Famous Plea Bargaining Cases

Sometimes plea bargain cases can become famous because of the circumstances. For instance, there is the Brady v. United States case. Robert. M Brady found himself facing kidnapping charges in New Mexico in 1969. He originally pleaded not guilty, but found that his co-defendant had taken a plea bargain and would possibly testify against him. Since the maximum sentence for this crime was the death penalty, he decided to change his plea to guilty and take a lesser sentence of 50 years. As you can see, plea bargaining can create drastic changes in a case.

Another infamous example is the North Carolina v. Alford case from 1969. Henry Alford was facing a first-degree murder charge, which carried the possibility of life imprisonment or the death penalty. To avoid this possibility, Alford took a charge plea bargain of pleading guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The certainty of a lesser sentence was appealing enough to Alford to forgo his right to a trial. There are a multitude of cases to review for more examples of plea bargaining, easily found with a simple web search.


While there may be instances where proceeding with a full trial is the best route, it is most likely that a charge can be resolved with a plea bargain. This should always be done with the assistance and consultation of the defense team because they can best evaluate the most likely outcome of the trial based upon the defendant’s criminal record, their knowledge of the court system, and their experience in the field. It is essential to weigh the pros and cons of this option and choose the best course of action for each individual case.

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