When you are charged with a crime, you may be offered a plea instead of going to trial—deciding whether or not to accept a plea offer is a difficult decision.
What Is a Plea Offer?
Before your case goes to trial, the prosecution may offer you a plea deal. Under a plea, you agree to plead guilty either to the crime being charged or to lesser crimes. Jail time might be avoided for first-time offenders if you agree to complete a program or community service instead. Some pleas come with other conditions, such as agreeing to testify against other people. Your plea may come with a negotiated sentence, that will be applied if you accept it, or it may be up to the judge to assign a sentence.
You must admit guilt in court, to the judge. You then receive a sentence for the crime you committed. In many situations, the sentence for the plea is less than the full possible sentence for the crime charged, and this is usually agreed to in advance. If you do not have a negotiated sentence, the prosecution can recommend a lower sentence, but ultimately the length of the sentence is up to the judge. The court does not have to accept the plea and must consider the criminal code requirements, the facts of the case, the victims, and the public’s interest in the case when evaluating a plea deal. You and the prosecutor might agree on a plea, but the judge could ultimately reject it.
If a plea has conditions, the court retains jurisdiction until you complete the conditions. If you do not, the plea is revoked, and you face a trial for all charges.
Why Are Pleas Offered?
Pleas are offered because they reduce the prosecution’s caseload and the government then avoids the expenses of a trial. With courtrooms, prosecutors, and judges overburdened with heavy caseloads, there is often a strong incentive to offer pleas. Ninety to 95 percent of criminal cases end in plea bargains.
Deciding Whether to Accept a Plea Offer
When considering whether to accept a plea, there are several factors to keep in mind:
- Even if you are innocent, it is important to understand that most defendants are found guilty, and you may not win your trial despite your innocence
- When you accept a plea, you are almost always able to receive a sentence that is lower than what you would receive if you went to a trial and were found guilty
- A plea leads to a speedy resolution to your case
- Agreeing to a plea means waiving your right to a trial, to a jury of your peers, and your right against self-incrimination
- Entering into a plea also means you lose the right to appeal your case
- Pleas usually result in less publicity than if you go to a trial
- Prosecutors may load on extra charges that would be dismissed at trial in an attempt to get a longer sentence through a plea
When considering the plea that is offered to you, you should consider:
- The weight of the evidence against you because, again, even if you are innocent, there is a high probability of a guilty verdict
- The sentence offered in the plea deal compared to the sentence if you are found guilty
- How long it will take to go through a trial – you may be able to complete much of your sentence in that time frame if you accept a plea
- The impact of having a conviction on your record which may influence your eligibility for certain jobs and can have consequences for future charges, especially when three-strike laws apply
Rejecting a Plea
A plea is always an option and is never required. Your attorney will go over the terms of the plea with you and help you understand the likely sentence and the crimes you will be admitting to. If you decide not to accept the plea, your case will go to trial. It is possible for the prosecution to add charges to your case if you reject the plea, so you may find you have a more complex case ahead of you. If you are found guilty, the prosecution can ask for a harsher sentence than what they were suggesting in the plea deal. Ultimately, your sentence is up to the judge.
Generally, prosecutors fully understand your case before a plea offer is made, so they don’t usually learn too much more if you go through a trial. Sometimes, though, new evidence can come to light during the trial. This can lead to the prosecution seeking a harsher sentence at your trial. Some people believe that prosecutors ask for higher sentences if pleas are rejected as a form of revenge. Instead, it’s useful to understand that the entire goal of the prosecution is to get as many convictions as possible with the highest sentence possible. They will almost always ask for a higher sentence when they can get a higher sentence.
A study by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found that two-thirds of defendants who reject a plea and go to trial receive harsher sentences than their plea offers provided. So, deciding against taking a plea not only means you must take your chances at trial when it comes to conviction but also, if you are convicted, you will likely receive a longer sentence.
A plea deal is often in both the best interests of the defendant and the prosecutor, but deciding whether or not to take a plea deal is a personal decision that should be made by consulting closely with your attorney and doing what is best for you. The attorneys at Burnham Law are experienced in negotiating and evaluating plea deals. Our goal is to get our clients the best possible outcome in their cases. Call us today at 303-990-5308 to get the help you need with your case.