Judge about to bang gavel on sounding block
Judge about to bang gavel on sounding block in the court room

A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecution and the defense that typically allows the defendant to plead guilty to a lesser offense than that for which he was originally charged or to obtain a lighter sentence.

Prosecutors often seek a plea bargain if they are uncertain about their ability to obtain a conviction on the original charge or if it will prompt the defendant to provide important information that might otherwise have remained secret.

Example: In 2003 prosecutors in Washington State offered a plea bargain to Gary Ridgway, the notorious “Green River Killer”. He would avoid the death penalty if he admitted to all his murders and led the police to bodies that had yet to be recovered. Ridgway wound up pleading guilty to 48 murders and received 48 life sentences. In this case, the state determined that getting closure for the families of the victims outweighed any societal gain from putting Ridgway to death.

In most cases involving ordinary people and less spectacular and grizzly circumstances plea bargains are a way for the overloaded court system to quickly process cases and avoid the expensive and time-consuming jury trial.

As such even if the prosecution is confident of convicting someone for say, simple assault, they may accept a plea of “no contest” and agree to a sentence that includes community service and probation rather than jail time, particularly if the defendant has no prior record.

The Three Forms of Plea Bargaining

In the contemporary criminal justice system there are three types of a plea bargain:

  • The Charge Bargain – With this type of plea bargain the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser crime than he was originally charged with.
  • The Count Bargain – With the count bargain a defendant will plead guilty to some of the charges against him with the understanding that others will be dropped.
  • The Sentencing Bargain – This is what Ridgway agreed to wherein he was spared the ultimate sentence in return for information.

Components of the Plea Bargain

A plea bargain is only considered valid if it meets the following requirements:

  • The defendant knowingly waives his right to a trial.
  • That waiver is completely voluntary and not the result of coercion or threats.
  • There is a factual basis to the criminal charges the defendant is pleading guilty to.

The Bargaining Process

Plea bargains may be announced in open court but they are arrived at in private. During the bargaining session only the defendant, his counsel, the prosecutor and on occasion the judge are present.

Both sides must agree to the terms of the bargain or it will have no weight. In addition, the judge can always reject the plea deal if he or she feels it is not in the public interest.

The Bottom Line

Though it remains controversial to many plea bargaining is practiced at every level of the justice system today and is considered an essential tool for prosecutors and defendants who wish to avoid long and expensive trials with uncertain outcomes.