Plea bargains are an integral part of the criminal legal system. Prosecutors like them because they’re always counted as a “win” in their statistics. The courts like them because they help keep the system moving and reduce the backlog of cases that need to be heard. Defendants like them because they can often carve out a deal that’s much better than they’d likely get if the case went to trial.
But plea bargains are actually complicated negotiations that may occur in stages. There are three different areas of a criminal case that may involve these kinds of negotiation:
You may need to negotiate around the evidence.
Not every piece of evidence in a case makes it into court. One of the things a defense attorney may do is try to negotiate with the prosecution about which facts can be admitted into evidence. The prosecutor may allow you to keep certain facts out of trial without a fight in exchange for your stipulation that other facts are true.
You can often negotiate the charges downward.
It isn’t uncommon for the authorities to “overcharge” someone — basically inflating the charges as high as possible whenever there is any kind of leeway. In that way, misdemeanors can sometimes be charged as felonies, and a single criminal act can be multiplied (such as when someone is charged with one count of possession of drug paraphernalia for every baggie found in their car). An experienced criminal defense attorney can often negotiate for much lower charges in exchange for a guilty plea.
You may be able to mitigate the consequences you face.
A guilty plea always means accepting responsibility for a crime — but the consequences you face don’t necessarily have to be severe. With the right plea, you may be able to get a much lighter sentence, including reduced fines and less time in jail or prison.
Not every case can — or should — be handled with a plea deal. When it can, however, it’s often a good way to quickly get back to your life.