How does a plea bargain work?

Plea bargaining is the way many criminal cases in West Virginia and throughout the U.S are settled. In fact, plea bargaining is the way most criminal cases get resolved, according to the American Bar Association. There are many practical reasons for the prevalence of plea bargaining, including time and money. Prosecutors in many jurisdictions use plea bargaining for the following reasons.

  • Prosecutors avoid tying up a lot of time in long trials and the cost involved as well
  • Overburdened court systems are spared the time and resources needed to conduct a trial for every charge a defendant may face; it is not uncommon for defendants to face multiple charges at one time.
  • Defendants not only save face by avoiding negative publicity but the actual cost of mounting a trial defense. They also save themselves the possibility of more severe punishment if they lose their case at trial.
  • Both the prosecution and defense benefit by avoiding the anxiety of a trial and facing an uncertain outcome.

Negotiations may be started by the defense or the prosecution and include an exchange of the defendant's guilty plea on a lesser charge for a reduced sentence or for having some charges dropped. It is important to note that the prosecutor in many cases must gain court approval of the plea bargain, and can only make recommendations to the judge regarding sentencing. The judge is the only one with the authority to determine the sentence but typically will follow the prosecution's suggestions as part of a plea agreement.

As part of a plea bargain, the defendant may also be allowed to complete a diversion program, which typically includes a probation period. During the probation, the defendant may be asked to participate in a rehabilitation program and make restitution. In exchange for a successful probation period, charges are typically erased from the defendant's record.

This article contains information about plea bargaining that, while important, is general in nature. It is not intended as legal counsel. 

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