In criminal cases, the prosecution will often make plea offers to the defendant. That process of negotiating is call plea bargaining. Deciding whether a person accused of a crime should accept a plea offer is an important decision that must be made carefully, as the ramifications are quite serious.
Plea bargaining is a major part of the criminal justice system in the United States, with over 90% of criminal cases being resolved through a plea deal. In other words, the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved through the defendant agreeing to plead guilty to some reduced charge or reduced sentence. The United States Supreme Court approved the use of plea bargains in Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742 (1970), finding that prosecutors can offer large reductions in sentences in exchange for a guilty plea, despite the possibly coercive nature of such deals. Thus, since the year 1970, the use of plea deals in the Unites States has been officially endorsed by the highest court in the country.
That potential for coercion comes from the fact that an innocent person may feel a urge to plead guilty and take a lesser penalty so as to avoid the risk of a more serious penalty if convicted at trial. For example, a person facing a felony robber charge (for which they could face decades in prison) might feel compelled to plead guilty to a misdemeanor theft charge (for which they would receive only a fine), out of fear that even though they are innocent they might be found guilty at trial. As another example, a person who is in jail and unable to post bond may feel pressured to plead guilty when doing so would get them out of jail right away, even when they believe they could win at a trial which wouldn’t take place for another month.
Aside from being a means of resolving a case without the risk of trial, the process of negotiating with the prosecution can be a useful thing even when the client wishes to proceed to a trial. That is because the negotiation process gives the client and their attorney some insight into the prosecutor’s thoughts about the case. Other times, the prosecution will divulge information that might otherwise have been difficult or impossible to learn, absent the discussions that occur as part of the plea bargaining process. For example, when I have a client who is charged with a serious felony and the prosecutor makes a plea offer that seems too-good-to-be-true, that tell us the the prosecutor has some reason to believe the case is a weak one. Knowing that information can help us seek an even better resolution to the case.
As a defense attorney, I see it as my role to give my client advice as to his or her prospects at trial, and what a plea deal would mean. I never pressure a client to plea bargain, as it is never the role of an attorney tell someone to take (or not to take) a plea deal. Each client has a constitutional right to decide how their case is resolved, and only the client is in the proper position to weigh the pros and cons of any offer made by the prosecution. Overall, in my opinion as an attorney who as handled thousands of cases, more cases should be taken to trial and fewer defendants should plead guilty – but again that is always the client’s choice.