December 16th, 2015 by Attorney Dan Carman
The popularity of television shows and movies centered on courtroom proceedings is a surprisingly inaccurate reflection of the criminal justice system. While some criminal cases do advance to the trial stage, it is estimated that 97 percent of federal convictions and 94 percent of state convictions are obtained through the plea bargaining process.
Although the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees all criminal defendants the right to a trial, the system would be overwhelmed if everyone who was eligible for a trial insisted on one. A total breakdown could occur in some jurisdictions if the number of people exercising their trial rights even just tripled. There are simply not enough resources to handle that much litigation.
Yet, the threat of the harsh penalties that could be imposed if a defendant risks trial and is found guilty serves as a strong incentive to accept a plea. According to the Human Rights Watch, the average sentence of federal drug offenders convicted after trial in 2012 was three times higher (16 years) than that received after a guilty plea (5 years and 4 months). If some prosecutors are strong-arming defendants by offering them shorter prison terms in exchange for guilty pleas, then it’s quite likely that the incentive has worked, regardless of guilt or innocence.
It avoids a prolonged trial and negates the risk of a guilty verdict on a more severe sentence — especially when there is strong evidence that the defendant committed the charged crime. Although judges have little to do with the process of plea bargaining, final approval rests with them and once a plea agreement is accepted by the court, it is very difficult to undo or vacate. Judges generally accept the sentence recommended by the prosecutor, but are not required to do so.
There are no hard and fast rules for determining whether a defendant is getting a good deal. Each case turns on its unique facts, and becomes a balancing act between the likelihood of conviction (with its likely penalty) if there is a trial and the known penalty that comes along with pleading to the reduced charge. Having an experienced criminal defense attorney examine the details of your case and analyze whether you are really being offered any sort of bargain can help ensure that it’s truly in your best interest rather than just an attempt to reduce prosecutorial workload by getting you through the system faster. A defense attorney can also make sure that you understand the terms of the plea agreement, the consequences in accepting it, and the penalties if you violate it.
The criminal record established via a plea bargain can be the same as if the defendant had gone to trial and was found guilty of something. That is why it is so important that you speak to an attorney. If you have been charged with a crime or have questions about how the law might apply to your situation, discuss it with one of the lawyers at the Lexington, KY-based Carman Law Firm. As criminal defense attorneys with years of experience, we offer thorough, experienced representation. Call today at (859) 685-1055 or fill out this online contact form to find out how we can help you.