In American’s legal system, the choice of whether or not to accept a plea deal is a question many defendants are faced with rather they are guilty or not. It is so common that 90% of all cases are resolved this way.
While plea deals may seem like a reasonable shortcut to justice, other times, defendants are left wondering if they should take their chances with a trial. As you can imagine, this can be a difficult choice to make, but here are a few things to keep in mind before accepting a plea deal.
But first, what is a plea deal, exactly?
Plea deals are negotiated agreements between prosecutors and defendants for a reduction in sentencing. These agreements are arrived at in different ways but often involve some admission of guilt in exchange for lighter sentences (sentence bargaining), reduced charges (charge bargaining), or some charges being dropped altogether (count bargaining).
Most people view plea deals in the context of guilty defendants who get lighter sentences for admitting to their crimes (after all who takes a deal if they are innocent); however, it applies to all defendants and their ability to prove their innocence in a court of law.
Doing so can require lots of time, money, and stress that can easily extend to one’s family and friends. Even after overcoming and enduring these obstacles, there is a chance that a defendant may still be found guilty. As a result, it is not unusual for innocent defendants to opt for the less stressful, reduced penalty, cheaper, and more certain outcome a plea deal offers.
What resources do you have?
The first thing defendants need to consider before accepting a plea deal is what was just briefly mentioned. Do they have the time, resources, support, and evidence necessary to win a trial, and how long could these resources last? It is not unheard of for a case to drag on for months and even years. Although having adequate resources does not guarantee an acquittal, choosing a trial over a plea deal without them may not be worth the risk.
Most people like to believe that the truth will prevail even in the face of menial resources. However, when it comes to our court system, truth is a matter of what can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. And the extent of a defendant’s ability to do this depends upon their resources.
Of course, this reveals the long-argued point that people with more resources have better access to justice than those who don’t, and even have the means to pervert it. While this is undeniably true in some cases, it doesn’t change the fact that adequate resources are necessary to a defendant’s chances of winning their case.
No going back
The defendants who forge ahead with trial usually do so with the understanding that they can’t revert to a previously offered plea deal if they lose or it appears as if they might lose their case.
The entire reason the prosecution even offers such deals is for the same reasons defendants overwhelmingly accept them; to save themselves, the judicial system, and even taxpayers time, money, and resources.
The American court system is so overburdened with cases and our jails so overpopulated that prosecutors have been known to reduce sentences by one-third or even time served to reduce the burden on themselves and the system. If a defendant passes up the offer and proceeds with a trial, they have eliminated the incentive for the prosecutor to make a deal.
With this in mind, it’s crucial to weigh the likely sentence, if found guilty, with the deal the prosecution offers to determine if it’s worth it. Determining this will vary for each defendant as it needs to be weighed against their resources, charges, and previous criminal record. However, thoroughly understanding what’s at stake on both sides of the coin will help defendants decide what is right for them.
Negotiating is key
It’s easy to get the impression that defendants are at the prosecutor’s mercy and must take whatever deal they offer or roll the dice with a trial. However, this isn’t entirely true. A significant component of plea deals is that they are deals and deals require negotiations. These negotiations do give defendants the ability to negotiate some of the terms of their deal. Nevertheless, when you consider that prosecutors have more knowledge of the system and the courts’ inner workings than an average defendant, its best to negotiate this through legal counsel.
A lawyer can help defendants understand the long-term ramifications of their options. They are also better able to sift through the prosecutions charges or threats to reach a deal that’s in the best interest of their clients. They can even help a client to understand what’s worth negotiating and what’s not. If you are a defendant or know of anyone who needs assistance negotiating the terms of a plea deal and you live in California, contact us. We can are more than happy to represent you.