The process by which criminal cases are resolved outside of court is known as plea bargaining. Plea bargaining is a hugely important part of the criminal justice system as it is estimated that around ninety to ninety-five percent of federal and state criminal cases are resolved through these types of agreements. Generally speaking, plea bargains involve agreements in which defendants plead guilty in exchange for a lesser charge or a reduced sentence.
Why are Plea Bargains So Common?
Plea agreements can be beneficial to defendants and prosecutors for multiple reasons. Fundamentally, plea bargains are beneficial to the prosecution because it relieves their burden of having to prove their cases beyond a reasonable doubt in court and results in reduced fines, jail time, or charges for defendants. Some of the practical reasons for plea bargaining include:
- It reduces the uncertainty of going to trial
- It helps relieve the burden of going to trial on state and federal court systems
- It can save defendants the time and money of going to trial
- Informal communication between prosecution and defense attorneys can give both sides insight into the strength and weaknesses of their case.
Types of Plea Agreements
A plea bargain is an agreement between the prosecutor, defense attorney, and defendant. The vast majority of plea bargains fall into one of two categories. In a sentence plea bargain, the prosecution agrees to recommend a reduced penalty to the judge in exchange for the defendant’s guilty plea. In a charge plea bargain, the prosecution reduces the seriousness of the charges in exchange for the defendant’s guilty plea.
Plea Bargaining Process
A plea bargain can be reached at any point before a verdict is rendered and plea deal offers are usually made fairly early on in the criminal process. The prosecution will typically weigh a number of factors before deciding whether to offer a plea deal. Some of these factors include:
- The seriousness of the crime charged
- The strength of the prosecution’s evidence
- The likelihood the defendant will re-offend
- Defendant’s criminal history
- Defendant’s level of cooperation (e.g. the defendant agrees to work as confidential drug informant)
- Stage of the criminal case
While plea bargains typically mean reduced fines or jail time for defendants, the terms of plea deals can vary greatly depending on the individual circumstances of the case. Though the prosecution, defense attorney, and defendant are involved in the negotiating process, the decision about whether to agree to a plea deal ultimately rests with the defendant.
Defense Attorney’s Role in Plea Negotiations
Given what is at stake, it is advisable that defendants discuss their options with an experienced criminal defense attorney before accepting a plea bargain. A skilled criminal defense attorney can help ensure that your rights are protected throughout the criminal process and assess all of the evidence in your case to determine whether a plea bargain is a good option for you.
In addition, your criminal defense attorney can advise you about the pros and cons of accepting a plea deal, the potential consequences of going to trial, and negotiate with the prosecution on your behalf to fight for the best possible outcome in your case.
Judge’s Role in Plea Negotiations
Once the terms of the plea bargain are agreed upon by both sides, it is submitted to the judge for final approval. While judges usually accept the sentencing recommendations of prosecutors, the judge can reject the plea bargain. Although the judge does not necessarily need to be involved in the plea bargaining process, Illinois law does allow either party to request what is known as a 402 conference.
In a 402 conference, the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney can discuss the details of the plea bargain so long as the defendant consents. If a judge participates in the plea negotiations through a 402 conference, he or she indicates what the penalty will be if the defendant pleads guilty. The 402 conference provides more certainty to the parties as the judge will be bound by the penalty he or she indicates in the conference.
Have Experienced Representation for Your Chicago Criminal Case
Chicago criminal defense lawyer Michael O’Meara has extensive experience defending thousands of clients against a broad range of criminal charges and he will work to get your charges dismissed or reduced whenever possible. As a former Cook County prosecutor, O’Meara understands how plea bargaining works and what is necessary to build an effective defense. He is committed to providing personalized communication throughout the criminal process and will do everything possible to protect your freedom.
Contact Chicago criminal defense lawyer Michael O’Meara today at for a free and confidential consultation.