In the modern criminal justice system, plea bargains have become more common than trials – but that does not mean that they’re always the best route to take in every case.
If you’ve been charged with a crime and are being offered a plea deal, here are several things that you need to know before you commit to a plea deal or reject it.
Not all plea bargains are built alike
It’s important to consider what the prosecution is offering and to make certain that you fully understand what the deal means for you. Are you being offered a misdemeanor assault charge instead of a felony assault in exchange for your plea? Or, is the prosecution offering to allow you to plead guilty to one count of possession instead of a dozen? Are you merely being offered a minimum sentence recommendation, instead (knowing that the judge may not honor it)?
Plea bargains are not a perfect solution
Plea agreements wouldn’t be so common if they didn’t offer some advantage to both sides. The state gets to avoid the costs of a trial, and the court system as a whole has a less burdensome docket.
For their part, defendants are spared the expense of defending themselves at a long trial, and they may also avoid some public embarrassment. They also have less reason to worry about the “trial tax” that sometimes leads to unusually harsh sentences when someone loses at trial. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to guilty pleas from innocent people who are simply afraid of taking their case to trial. That may be especially true for low-income defendants who are worried about the financial burden of their defense on their families.
There are long-term consequences to any plea
It’s also important to realize that taking a plea may mean that your current problems are over – but you can face significant collateral consequences in the future. Even if the plea bargain results in your immediate release from jail, you will carry that criminal record forward. That can affect future sentences (if you’re ever convicted of another crime), your civil rights, your ability to find employment and even your social relationships.
You should never make this kind of decision without first seeking legal guidance and thoroughly evaluating the ins and outs of both your case and the plea deal itself. There is too much at stake to take any other approach.