What is a Plea Agreement?

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  • Written By: Erin J. Hill
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 February 2020
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A plea agreement, also known as a plea bargain, is an agreement made between the prosecution and the defendant in a criminal case. The agreement generally states that the defendant will plead guilty of the crime or crimes and in exchange will receive a shorter sentence, lessened or dropped charges, or lesser fines than he or she would normally receive if found guilty during a trial. This helps many cases avoid going to trial, allowing prosecutors to take on larger case loads.

There are advantages for both parties in accepting a plea agreement. The defendant gets a lighter sentence in many cases and the court systems are not bogged down with criminal trials. Most serious felony cases end in a plea agreement rather than a jury trial, allowing things to move more quickly.

The plea agreement is also the topic of many debates regarding ethical concerns for both victims of crimes and defendants. In many cases, someone who has committed a serious offense will walk away with a lesser sentence after a plea agreement, leading the victims feeling shortchanged because justice was not fully served. Many victims or families or victims would rather see the case go to trial and the perpetrator receive the maximum sentence allowable.


Other issues involve defendants who are not guilty of the crime for which they are being charged. Prosecutors are trained to negotiate, and they are often able to convince defendants that there is little hope of winning a case. This could lead to innocent men and women being sent to prison for crimes that they did not commit, while the actual criminals may end up going free.

For these reasons, it is highly advised that defendants in criminal cases hire experienced attorneys. These attorneys can give accurate information on whether a defendant has a chance at winning his or her trial so that those who have been offered a plea agreement can make a more informed decision. The lawyer should also be trained and experienced in negotiating plea agreements so that the defendant, primarily if he or she is innocent of the crime, can get the lightest sentence possible.

Once a plea agreement has been made, the defendant is not able to go back and change his or her plea at a later time. The guilty plea must stand and the terms of the agreement will be enforced. For this reason, a plea agreement should never be entered into lightly. Pleading guilty to a crime is the same as being convicted in a trial, so defendants will acquire a criminal record that will follow them for the rest of their lives.


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