Understanding plea bargains

West Virginia residents charged with one or more crimes may find a plea bargain to be a practical mechanism for reducing their charges or minimizing their prison sentence. Before entering into such a bargain, however, defendants should thoroughly understand what they are agreeing to and how it will impact their future.

The American Bar Association defines a plea bargain as an agreement between the defense and the prosecution regarding one or more specific things. Often a defendant's attorney initiates plea bargain negotiations with the prosecutor so as to derive favorable treatment for the client.

As set forth by FindLaw, there are three types of plea bargains as follows:

  1. If the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for the prosecutor agreeing to drop a more serious charge, this is called a charge bargain.
  2. If the defendant agrees to plead guilty to the existing charge(s) in exchange for the prosecutor agreeing to recommend a lighter sentence, this is called a sentence bargain.
  3. If the defense agrees not to dispute the truth of certain facts the prosecutor will bring up at trial in exchange for the prosecutor agreeing not to bring up certain other facts, this is called a fact bargain.

Plea bargain advantages and disadvantages

When a defendant agrees to plead guilty rather than go to trial, one of the biggest advantages is that he or she saves the cost of hiring defense attorneys to represent him or her and expert witnesses to testify on his or her behalf. This can be a huge benefit for defendants who are not financially well off.

Likewise, when a defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for lighter sentencing recommendations, it can substantially reduce the time he or she will spend in prison. This type of a plea bargain, however, is not a guaranteed one. Just because the prosecutor agrees to make the favorable recommendations does not mean that the judge is required to follow them. A judge has the discretion to follow or not follow the prosecutor's recommendation. If the judge believes that a longer sentence is warranted in a particular criminal case, he or she is within his or her rights to sentence a convicted defendant as he or she sees fit.

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