How Judges Review Plea Bargains in Criminal Law Cases
A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecution and the defendant in a criminal case that obviates the need to go to trial. The two sides usually compromise on a lesser charge or reduced penalty in exchange for a guilty plea or no contest plea. Before the agreement can be finalized, however, a judge needs to review and approve it. The prosecutor must present all of the terms of the deal to the judge, including conditions that must be satisfied in the future.
The judge has the authority to accept or reject a plea bargain. They will consider the nature of the charges and the defendant’s criminal history, if any, as well as the circumstances surrounding the case. Other factors that a judge may consider include the interests of the public, such as whether the proposed sentence would keep the community safe. They may take the interests of the victim into account, although the victim does not need to approve the plea bargain. Any evidence about the defendant’s character may be relevant to the judge.
Making a Decision on a Plea Bargain
The defendant will not be able to enter the plea until and unless the judge decides that the terms are acceptable. There are several different types of actions that a judge can take in these situations. They can accept the plea agreement as it is, or they can reject it outright. If a judge rejects a plea agreement, they usually must state a justification on the record.
In other cases, a judge may accept only certain terms of the agreement, while rejecting other terms, such as the proposed sentence. This is known as a partially negotiated plea. If the judge is sympathetic to the defendant’s case or believes that they have a strong defense, they may suggest that the defendant enter their plea without negotiating an agreement. This may result in a lighter sentence than the sentence outlined in the agreement. Or the judge may feel that they do not have enough information to make a decision. They can postpone the decision until after they review the presentence report.
Some states impose limits on these options. For example, the judge may need to accept or reject the agreement in its entirety. Other states do not require the judge to follow the sentencing recommendation provided in the agreement, even if they otherwise accept the deal. This may give the defendant the right to withdraw the plea and restart the case.
What Happens Next
A judge generally cannot wipe out a plea agreement after they have accepted it and entered the conviction. There may be an exception if the agreement requires the defendant to meet certain future conditions. The court will retain jurisdiction until the defendant meets the conditions, and the judge may be able to wipe out the agreement if the defendant does not meet them within the required time. A common example is when a defendant does not complete community service or required courses, such as an anger management class in a domestic violence case or an alcohol abuse class in a DUI case. This means that the judge could impose a new sentence, possibly involving jail time.
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