Plea bargains, also called negotiated pleas or just “deals,” are the way most criminal cases end. A plea bargain is an agreement between a defendant and a prosecutor, in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty, or “no contest,” in exchange for an agreement by the prosecutor to drop one or more charges, reduce a charge to a less serious offense, or recommend to the judge a specific sentence acceptable to the defense.
A guilty or no-contest plea entered as a judge-approved plea bargain results in a criminal conviction; the defendant’s guilt is established just as it would be after a trial. The conviction will show up on the defendant’s criminal record (rap sheet). And, the defendant loses any rights or privileges, such as the right to vote, that the defendant would lose if convicted after trial. Depending on the nature of the conviction and the defendant’s other interactions with the law, however, the defendant might be able to seal, or expunge, the criminal record.
A “no contest” or nolo contendere plea, in essence, says to the court, “I don’t choose to contest the charges against me.” This type of plea, often part of a plea bargain, results in a criminal conviction just like a guilty plea. And a no-contest plea will show up on a criminal record. However, if the victim later sues the defendant in civil court, the no-contest plea often cannot be offered into evidence against the defendant as an admission of guilt.
In most jurisdictions and courthouses, plea bargaining can take place at virtually any stage in the criminal justice process. Plea deals can be struck shortly after a defendant is arrested and before the prosecutor files criminal charges. Plea negotiations may culminate in a deal as a jury returns to a courtroom to announce its verdict.
As criminal courts become ever more crowded, prosecutors and judges alike feel increased pressure to move cases quickly through the system. Criminal trials can take days, weeks, or sometimes months, while guilty pleas can often be arranged in minutes. Also, the outcome of any given trial is usually unpredictable, whereas a plea bargain provides both prosecution and defense with some control over the result – hopefully, one that both can live with.
For these reasons and other, and despite its many critics, plea bargaining is very common. More than 90% of convictions come from negotiated pleas, which means less than 10% of criminal cases end up in trials. And though some commentators still view plea bargains as secret, sneaky arrangements that are antithetical to the people’s will, the federal government and many state have written rules that explicitly set out how plea bargains may be arranged and accepted by the court.
NLPA can assist a defendant’s counsel with the plea bargaining process and the sentencing phase that follows to keep the sentence as low as possible.