Even if a defendant believes that they did not commit the crime charged, they may feel inclined to consider a plea bargain offered by the prosecution. The long delays in the criminal justice system can mean that a case drags out for months, derailing a defendant’s life and adding to their expenses and stress. Nobody knows for sure what to expect from a trial, and a defendant could get a result from a jury that is worse than what a prosecutor offers. Usually, a plea bargain involves getting a lesser charge on a defendant’s criminal record and receiving a more lenient penalty. This can be attractive if the original charge carries substantial jail time and fines.
Legal Reasons to Accept a Plea Bargain
While many defendants can get out of custody by posting bail or obtaining a release on their own recognizance, some defendants will not be granted bail or will not be able to afford the bail amount. This means that they will stay in jail until their case is resolved. An efficient resolution may be especially appealing to this type of defendant, since they may get out of jail much earlier with a plea bargain than they would if their case goes to trial. Sometimes a plea bargain will not include any jail time, or it may consist of time served. Even if it does include jail time, the sentence may be shorter than the time that the defendant would serve while waiting for trial.
If the defendant is ever charged with another offense, the prosecution and judge will review their criminal record. Having a guilty plea or a no contest plea on the record will look better than having a conviction after a trial. This is partly because the defendant likely will plead guilty or no contest to a lesser level of offense or to fewer offenses. A criminal record can be an aggravating factor in sentencing for later offenses, so minimizing the number and severity of prior offenses can help a defendant avoid or reduce jail time down the road.
Often, a plea bargain involves reducing a felony to a misdemeanor. This can be especially useful because it may allow the defendant to preserve their civil rights, retain a professional license, and protect their job prospects. In states that use a three-strike system, a plea bargain that reduces a charge from a strike to a non-strike may be attractive.
Social Reasons to Accept a Plea Bargain
Many types of criminal charges, such as sex crimes and domestic violence, carry a social stigma. Getting a reduction can help preserve the defendant’s relationships with their loved ones and people in the community. If the defendant does need to spend time in jail or prison, they may receive better treatment from fellow inmates and guards if the crime that they allegedly committed is less distasteful.
A defendant who has a certain reputation to uphold may want to avoid the publicity associated with a criminal trial. Even someone who is not a public figure may want to protect their family from embarrassment. A criminal record is public even if it results from a plea bargain, and a plea can be reported in the media, but the exposure is much less intense and protracted than the exposure from a trial. The details of a defendant’s private life are less likely to emerge. Sometimes a defendant may want to take a plea bargain to end a case quickly so that they can protect loved ones or friends who might also be investigated or charged based on the same events.
Reasons for Judges to Accept a Plea Bargain
As mentioned above, the criminal justice system is greatly overburdened. Judges have full calendars and may be concerned that they cannot effectively try every case. Overcrowding issues in jails also concern many judges, who fear that a truly dangerous criminal may need to be released too early. Getting someone who committed a relatively minor offense out of the system efficiently may serve the greater good of society.
Reasons for Prosecutors to Accept a Plea Bargain
Like judges, prosecutors face overburdened schedules and limitations on their resources. Plea bargains are efficient and inexpensive, and they guarantee a favorable result instead of the uncertainty of going to trial. Many prosecutors are proud of their success rate and evaluated on this basis.
A prosecutor also may be reluctant to go to trial if it would expose their informants. An informant might be required to testify at trial, which could result in the defense impeaching their testimony if they have a criminal record or other dubious events in their past. In other situations, a prosecutor may feel sympathy for a victim of a crime and want to assist them in getting the case resolved efficiently and quietly. A victim may not want to testify in open court and confront the perpetrator again. (On the other hand, some victims want to have this opportunity, and many states allow them to present their position to the prosecutor or the judge. However, victims do not make the ultimate decision about whether to offer a plea bargain or go to trial.)
Sometimes a prosecutor or their supervisor will not agree with certain laws that they are required to enforce. Offering a generous plea bargain can allow them to mitigate the impact of those laws.