Every day, the news floods us with examples of people pleading guilty to crimes, but if they could potentially win a not guilty verdict in trial, why would they plead guilty? This is because the United States criminal justice system works in such a way that prosecutors make plea bargains seem like attractive options.
According to The Atlantic, more than 90% of all felony convictions are brokered as plea bargains, but these deals aren’t all about justice. They’re largely used to speed up the system and spare courts the expense of a trial. Offering a lesser charge with an easy sentence to avoid a more serious sentence, possibly even a life sentence, is the kind of deal prosecutors make all the time and it comes loaded with consequences.
Justice or convenience?
In a typical plea bargain, the prosecutors will lay out the evidence they have against the defendant. They might describe the worst sentence the defendant could face if found guilty of the most serious charges. Then they’ll contrast that sentence with the much less serious sentences associated with the lesser charges.
For example, if you were charged with assault, battery and aggravated malicious wounding, the prosecutors might tell you how the aggravated malicious wounding charge could be worth a prison sentence of 20 years to life. Then they might tell you that if you were to plead guilty to simple assault and battery, you could possibly avoid prison entirely.
Going from the chance of facing a life sentence to simply paying a fine may seem like a no-brainer, but there are hidden consequences to consider:
- Forfeited trial: In the United States, defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and even if the prosecutors claim they have all the evidence they need, there may be mitigating circumstances. Perhaps a defendant could claim self-defense. Perhaps an experienced defense lawyer could reveal the star witness’s bias. If you take a plea deal, you’ll sacrifice your right to a trial and your chance to clear your name of all charges.
- Criminal record: Taking a plea deal means you become guilty of the crime to which you confess, whether or not you committed it. That guilty verdict will live with you and might keep you from landing a good job or getting the apartment you deserve. If you had hoped to pursue medicine or law in graduate school, your conviction might weigh against you.
- Honoring the deal: Each plea deal comes with terms of its own. Those might include serving the sentence for a crime you didn’t commit or agreeing to specific court orders. If you were to violate those terms in any way, you could find yourself back in court.
Not a decision to make lightly
Defendants should always make sure they understand the nature of the plea bargain before they accept. Most of the time, this means consulting with an experienced lawyer to weigh the options, including the terms of the deal and the consequences of accepting or rejecting the deal. The choice is never simple. It’s about your path in life.