Definition of plea bargain
plea bargain (plural plea bargains)
- (US, law) An agreement in which a defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge instead of not guilty to a greater one
A plea bargain (also plea agreement, plea deal or copping a plea) is an agreement in a criminal case whereby the prosecutor offers the defendant the opportunity to plead guilty, usually to a lesser charge or to the original criminal charge with a recommendation of a lighter than the maximum sentence.
A plea bargain allows criminal defendants to avoid the risk of conviction at trial on the original more serious charge. For example, a criminal defendant charged with a felony theft charge, the conviction of which would require imprisonment in state prison, may be offered the opportunity to plead guilty to a misdemeanor theft charge, which may not carry jail time.
In cases such as an automobile collision when there is a potential for civil liability against the defendant, the defendant may agree to plead no contest or "guilty with a civil reservation", which essentially is a guilty plea without admitting civil liability.
Plea bargaining can present a dilemma to defense attorneys, in that they must choose between vigorously seeking a good deal for their present client, or maintaining a good relationship with the prosecutor, for the sake of helping future clients.
In charge bargaining, defendants plead guilty to a less serious crime than the original charge. In count bargaining, they plead guilty to a subset of multiple original charges. In sentence bargaining, they plead guilty agreeing in advance what sentence will be given, however; this sentence can still be denied by the judge. In fact bargaining, defendants plead guilty pursuant to an agreement in which the prosecutor stipulates to certain facts that will affect how the defendant is punished under the sentencing guidelines.
Plea bargaining is criticized, particularly outside the United States, on the grounds that its close relationship with rewards, threats and coercion potentially endangers the correct legal outcome. Coercive plea bargaining has been criticized on the grounds that it infringes an individual's rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated in the UK's Human Rights Act 1998.
In the 1991 book Presumed Guilty: When Innocent People Are Wrongly Convicted, author Martin Yant discusses the use of coercion in plea bargaining. (p. 172)
Even when the charges are more serious, prosecutors often can still bluff defense attorneys and their clients into pleading guilty to a lesser offense. As a result, people who might have been acquitted because of lack of evidence, but also who are in fact truly innocent, will often plead guilty to the charge. Why? In a word, fear. And the more numerous and serious the charges, studies have shown, the greater the fear. That explains why prosecutors sometimes seem to file every charge imaginable against defendants.
The theoretical work based on the prisoner's dilemma is one reason that, in many countries, plea bargaining is forbidden. Often, precisely the prisoner's dilemma scenario applies: it is in the interest of both suspects to confess and testify against the other suspect, irrespective of the innocence of the accused. Arguably, the worst case is when only one party is guilty: here, the innocent one is unlikely to confess, while the guilty one is likely to confess and testify against the innocent.
Another argument against plea bargaining is that it may not actually reduce the costs of administering justice. For example, if a prosecutor has only a 25% chance of winning his case and sending the defendant away to prison for 10 years, he may make a plea agreement for a sentence of one year; but if plea bargaining is unavailable, a prosecutor may drop the case completely.
Agency problems sometimes arise in plea bargaining in that although the prosecutor represents the people and the defense attorney represents the defendant, these agents' goals may be far from congruent with those of their principals. Moreover, prosecutors and defense attorneys often view each other as colleagues and generally wish to maintain good relations with one another. A defense attorney often receives a flat fee or in any event will not receive enough additional money if he goes to trial to cover the costs of doing so; this can create an incentive to plea bargain, even at the expense of the defense attorney's client's interests.
On the other hand, the prosecutor may wish to maintain a high conviction rate and avoid losing high-profile trials; thus, settling a case by plea bargain may further his interests, even if the resulting sentence would not effectively deter crime.
Plea bargaining has been defended as a voluntary exchange that leaves both parties better off, in that defendants have many procedural and substantive rights, but by pleading guilty, defendants sell these rights to the prosecutor, receiving concessions that they esteem more highly than the rights surrendered. It has been argued that plea bargaining benefits society by ensuring that the guilty are not acquitted.
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