Plea Bargain

Plea bargains are legal devices which allow a criminal defendant to plead guilty to a crime and give up their right to trial in exchange for conviction on a crime of lesser severity, reduction or combination of charges for multiple crimes, or a reduction in time to be served in custody or cash fine to be levied. 

A plea bargain can be offered in any case ranging from a simple traffic offense to murder in most states. The purpose behind them is simply a matter of prosecutors choosing what cases in their large caseloads to devote limited time and staff resources to in a courtroom trial, and which to resolve by alternative means.  

Most criminal cases begin with an initial appearance and plea by the defendant. If the court conducting the initial appearance does not dismiss charges, a trial date is set for a future time that is normally months in the future. In the interim period, both prosecution and defense attorneys have the opportunity to prepare for the criminal trial. By this point, most of the case evidence is already in their possession, and they have a fairly good idea of their prospects for success at trial in either gaining a conviction or an acquittal. Follow up investigation by in house investigators may follow, seeking to gain more information from potential trial witnesses and to clarify other questions which may arise.  

Defense attorneys are well aware of the resource constraints on prosecutors and criminal courts which make it impractical to try the vast majority of cases in a reasonable timeframe. In fact usually ninety percent or more of criminal cases are settled by plea bargain. Defense attorneys know that time is on their side, and as trial date approaches, the incentive for a prosecutor to settle a case grows, because once a trial starts, all other cases are set aside indefinitely until the case before them is completed. That process, as in the murder case of O. J. Simpson, can potentially stretch out for months or even years.  

The fact is the degree of justice given a victim is not necessarily a function of how much time a convicted criminal is sentenced to, and the correlation between the two varies widely based on the seriousness of the crime involved. Certainly the harm and trauma done to a rape or murder victim is far more than, say, the victim of a hit and run fender bender, and thus the emotional impact of a plea bargain is much more significant to the former than the latter.

Fortunately, in most cases, prosecutors save their energy and resources to take the most serious cases in their offices to trial and avoid plea bargains for the worst of offenders whenever possible. In some cases, however, it remains practical to do so. What would be the point, for instance, in seeking to impose multiple life sentences on a murderer, when there is only one life to be had? None whatsoever, of course. That is why citizens must rely, to some degree, on the good sense and ethical grounding of their local prosecutors in exercising their duties, and in most cases, they earn that trust.  

By and large, availability of the plea bargain option is a useful and necessary tool for prosecutors and trial courts seeking to handle caseloads that far exceed their available resources. Citizen watchdog groups can and should monitor this process, and should bring public attention to defendants and cases in which a serious offender is being offered a plea bargain that trivializes their crime or fails to keep a dangerous person off the streets for as long as possible. Contrary to popular belief, timely public pressure can and does impact the behavior of courts and prosecutors, and it should be used sparingly but effectively.