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Even though you are charged with a crime, you are nonetheless innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt–remember O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony, and George Zimmerman; arguably guilty in the public eye, but innocent in the eyes of the law. While getting to the point where one’s guilt is actually proven beyond a reasonable doubt is relatively rare, plea negotiations are an important part of our justice system; some say the most important considering a great majority of criminal cases are resolved through plea deals rather than trial. In this blog post, I intend to address four areas of interest relating to plea negotiations: (1) What is a plea bargain, (2) What are some of the factors that affect plea bargain punishments, (3) What are some pros and cons of plea bargains, and (4) How to approach a plea bargain.

What is a plea bargain?

Generally speaking, a plea deal is a contract. During plea bargaining, the prosecution and defense negotiate their respective positions in an effort to have the defendant admit guilt in exchange for accepting a penalty. By admitting guilt, a prosecutor may forgo enforcing maximum punishment in exchange for a more mutually agreeable disposition. As stated, a plea bargain is like a contract and, as such, the prosecution and defense are free to negotiate accordingly.

With respect to plea bargain penalties, several different consequences are possible. Plea penalties could include one, all, or any combination of the following: jail time, community supervision (i.e. probation, deferred adjudication, or pre-trial diversion), fines, and conditions imposed during criminal sentencing. A prosecutor could recommend straight jail time in exchange for your plea of guilt. A prosecutor could combine jail time with deferred adjudication and conditions relating to a range of things such as community service, counseling and/or assistive courses, and forbidding drug use and/or contact with certain individuals. A prosecutor is allowed great discretion when making plea recommendations and is under no obligation, moral or legal, to make a plea recommendation that is acceptable to the defense.

Furthermore, several factors affect a penalty recommendation. For example, general office policy and the prosecutors with whom you deal affect penalty recommendations. Additionally, several other variables are weighed when considering plea penalties. Consideration is given to factors concerning the crime such as the seriousness of the crime, ramifications including injury and restitution, and defendant’s intent and actions. Consideration is also given to the defendant’s background such as criminal history, psychiatric history, and professional and educational background. Factors relating to the defendant’s existing life conditions and future possibilities are considered such as defendant’s attitude as it relates to the crime and cooperation, defendant’s potential for reform versus repeat, and defendant’s home and work situations. A prosecutor will also consider factors that weigh on him such as the court’s docket, efforts involved in making the case, and a judge or jury’s reaction to a plea versus trial.

Texas criminal defendants must understand the pros and cons of plea bargaining

Moving on to some of the pros and cons of taking a plea deal, whether a plea deal is good for you depends entirely on the facts and circumstances surrounding your case and life. Some people are comforted by how quick a case can be disposed of. Expediency of a plea could help some people get on with their lives, or even help them in negotiating for a reduced fee with criminal defense lawyers. Some people can take a plea deal and, thus, avoid jail time and/or ultimately a conviction. Silver lining is in the eye of the beholder.

With respect to some cons, the first that comes to mind is admitting guilt. Hopefully, if you ultimately decide to plea guilty in exchange for a deal, it’s with informed consent. Also, hopefully you decide to put up a bit of a fight because, remember, you’re innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Also remember, the police and prosecution have rules to follow, so hold their feet to the fire too. What, they can challenge you, but you can’t challenge them? It’s their evidence that’s on the hot seat, not the other way around. Also, there could be collateral consequences such as losing your right to bear arms, orders of protection, registration as a sex offender, deportation, and penalty enhancements for future similar conduct. This list is by no means exhaustive, and possible consequences depend on the facts of the case.

While plea deals are said to enhance an individual’s prospects for rehabilitation and relieve burdens placed on a defendant and the criminal justice system, I am nonetheless of the opinion that plea deals need to be approached with extreme care. What might seem like a sweet deal now could have a lasting impact on your life, which is why it is extremely important to consult a qualified criminal defense lawyer. Whatever your ultimate choice may be, make sure it’s an informed one. Depending on the facts, you could qualify for alternative dispositions such as a lesser included offense, charge/range reduction, pre-trial diversion, or even a dismissal. Focus on the big picture, and make sure you are aware of your options and possible collateral consequences because, remember, plea bargains almost always require a defendant to plead guilty on the record, and more often than not that record will follow you around for the rest of your life.