If you listen to the news or watch legal dramas and films, you’ve probably heard of the phrase “plea bargaining”. This term refers to the agreement between the defendant and the prosecutor in which the former pleads guilty to a certain charge against him to gain certain privileges from the latter. If a defendant faces several charges, for instance, he may admit being guilty to one of these or to the least serious charge in a bid to have the other charges dropped. If he faces just one charge, he may plead guilty to it to receive a less serious punishment.
Plea bargaining is seen by many as a good way to reduce the cost and hassle of criminal trials. But, over the years, it has gained numerous opponents, who claim that this agreement can damage the integrity of the justice system and even destroy the lives of innocent people. If you don’t know which side you should stand on, you need to learn more about plea bargaining and find out what its advantages and disadvantages are. Here’s a list to help you get started:
List of Advantages of Plea Bargaining
1. It reduces the chance of a lengthy trial.
Criminal trials can go on for months and even years, causing both the defendant and the plaintiff to spend a fortune on attorney’s fees and to set aside enough time to attend court hearings. However, if the defendant decides to opt for plea bargaining, it can shorten the trial since the jury and the judge no longer have to decide if the accused is guilty or not. This can save both parties a substantial amount of time and money while ensuring that justice is served.
2. It helps defendants avoid heavy punishment.
This is particularly important for defendants who committed crimes while intoxicated and weren’t fully aware of what they were doing as well as for young first-time offenders who don’t fully understand the ramifications of what they’d done. By pleading guilty to less serious crimes, they can be given lenient sentences and have the chance to bring their lives back to normal as soon as possible.
3. It ensures that those who commit crimes will be punished.
Criminal trials are full of uncertainty, particularly for plaintiffs. This comes from the fact that, if the court finds their evidence to be weak and inefficient, the defendants can be acquitted — even when they did commit the crime and were actually guilty as charged. However, through plea bargaining, the defendants can be convinced to admit that they were responsible for the crime, and the plaintiffs won’t have to worry about obtaining justice for themselves.
4. It helps the government save time and money.
Plea bargaining helps reduce the workload of prosecutors and ensure they can focus on bigger and more serious cases instead of spending time on petty ones. It likewise helps minimize the caseloads of local and supreme courts since they can get minor cases out of the way at a faster rate and have more time and space for more important trials.
As mentioned above, defendants who opt for plea bargaining receive lenient sentences. Many of these may not involve imprisonment particularly for petty crimes, so defendants can be ordered to go through probation or conditional discharge instead of spending time in prison. This can greatly help in keeping prison populations under control, ensuring that jails have enough space for those who commit serious crimes and reducing the amount that the government spends on feeding and clothing prisoners.
List of Disadvantages of Plea Bargaining
1. It can be abused by those who are in authority.
Plea bargaining is mostly seen to be beneficial for defendants, but what many people don’t realize is that it can also be used as a tool for those in authority to further their own agenda. Prosecutors, for example, can convince or even coerce defendants to plea guilty so they can avoid losing cases (particularly those that have weak evidence against the defendants) and maintain high conviction rates. Defense attorneys may also convince their clients to opt for plea bargaining; many of these attorneys receive a flat fee so, when their clients plead guilty, they can cut the trial short, get their fees, and proceed to work on another case for another set of fees.
Courts, particularly at the local level, can also use plea bargaining to earn money. Specifically, they can convince defendants to plead to a less serious charge so the case remains with them instead of going to a higher court. This way, the local court (instead of the higher court) will get to receive the fines that are collected when the case concludes.
2. It can cause innocent people to become wrongfully convicted.
There have been cases when people, even when they are wrongfully accused, plead guilty to minor charges because they’re afraid of being convicted of serious crimes and spending a long time in prison. There are also cases when innocent defendants plead guilty because they can’t afford to pay the high legal fees that are associated with lengthy criminal trials. In both of these scenarios, the defendants end up receiving a sentence that they don’t deserve and get a permanent criminal record that damages their future plans.
Of course, there are innocent people who don’t opt for plea bargaining because they feel it’s unfair. However, when this happens, these people are dragged through a stressful and time-consuming trial and may even end up being convicted by the jury of a crime they didn’t commit.
3. It can prevent justice from being served.
As mentioned above, plea bargaining can cause people to be imprisoned even when they didn’t do anything wrong. Similarly, it can cause people who have done serious crimes to receive lenient punishments that are totally disproportionate with the atrocities they’ve committed. In both of these cases, plea bargaining doesn’t promote justice and paves the way to unfair punishments.
Plea bargaining can bring about several benefits when used correctly, but it also has several drawbacks. Defendants, attorneys, and prosecutors should carefully weigh its pros and cons before deciding whether they’ll use it or not.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.