A plea bargain is an agreement between a prosecutor and defendant whereby the prosecutor provides incentive for the defendant to plead guilty in order to avoid going to trial. Plea bargains can benefit defendants by guaranteeing particular outcomes. The two most common types of plea bargains are charge and sentence bargaining, where the first type reduces the charge(s), and the latter, the sentence(s). Fact bargaining is a less common type of plea bargain.
If the defendant is facing multiple charges, a charge bargain might involve dropping some or even most of the charges with the defendant pleading guilty to the remaining charges. If the defendant is only facing a single charge, the prosecutor might offer the defendant a chance to plead guilty to a lesser charge.
Alternately, the charge might remain the same but with a reduced sentence that reflects the lower end of compensatory sentencing for that crime. If the charge carries 10-20 years, for example, a sentencing bargain might guarantee ten years with a chance for parole after seven. In death penalty cases plea bargains often involve guaranteeing the defendant life in prison rather than going to trial to risk a possible death sentence. Sentence plea bargains typically have to be pre-approved by the trial judge.
A third, less common type of plea bargain is fact bargaining, whereby the prosecution might agree not to contest the defendant’s version of events, might agree to be lenient on accomplices, or might agree to keep certain aggravating factual information from the court in order to avoid a higher, mandatory sentence associated with such circumstances. Fact bargaining can also involve other agreements such as arranging for the defendant to go to a particular prison, giving the defendant immunity against crimes for which he has not been charged, or attempting to get charges in other jurisdictions dismissed.
Most often a prosecutor will offer a defendant a chance at a plea bargain, though public pressure to prosecute a particular defendant to the full extent of the law, politics or other issues might intervene. A defense attorney might also approach the prosecutor on behalf of his or her client to plead out the case, though plea bargains are not a right of the defendant, but a prosecutorial option.
For the defendant, the best possible outcome is going to trial and being found not guilty, so plea bargains must be considered carefully by the defendant and his or her attorney. When a plea bargain is struck, the details should clearly be stated on the record to protect the rights of the defendant where these terms are concerned. The defendant might also have obligations to meet as part of the plea bargain, such as testifying against a co-defendant or providing key information about the case.
When a defendant agrees to a plea bargain, he or she gives up the right to a trial and the right to remain silent. Generally a judge must approve a plea bargain before it is final. If a judge rejects a plea bargain, the defendant can reassert his or her right to a trial.