Plea deals are very common in U.S. criminal cases. In fact, 98% of all federal cases are resolved through plea deals of one form or another.
Defendants can be agreeable to plea deals for several reasons, depending on their circumstances. Oftentimes, they decide that a (more or less) certain outcome and a reduced sentence is better than taking their chance at a trial. But, what’s in it for the prosecutors? Why do they offer deals in the first place?
It’s a combo of legal and practical concerns
The legal system can be heavily burdened by a high volume of cases. Plea agreements are sometimes a response to the reality that taking every case to trial would be so expensive and time-consuming that it would grind the wheels of justice to a halt. In that respect, plea deals can simply be a matter of resource management.
However, plea agreements are also offered because:
- There are weaknesses in the case. A plea agreement represents a “sure win” for the prosecution, so the prosecutor may offer one when they aren’t certain the evidence is strong enough to secure a conviction.
- The prosecutor wants someone else. Prosecutors often make their biggest criminal cases by getting lower-level defendants (or “little fish”) to testify against higher-level defendants (or “big fish”), especially in white collar cases. A plea deal may be offered to secure a defendant’s cooperation and get them to testify against someone else.
- They may want to preserve a specific public image. If a defendant is seen as largely sympathetic, the prosecutor may be encouraged to offer a plea to avoid a public relations nightmare. In other situations, they may want to use plea deals to enhance their personal reputations and present a strong record of success.
Plea bargains aren’t always the right choice for defendants, but they do have their place. However, it takes experienced legal guidance to make sure that the very best deal is negotiated – and it’s always wise to remember that a plea deal wouldn’t be offered if there wasn’t something in it for the prosecutor. That makes it critical to determine if a plea bargain is actually in your best interest – not theirs – before committing to a course of action.