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The plea bargain is an accepted, necessary and critical component of the criminal justice system throughout the entire United States. The term "plea bargain" refers to an agreement, usually in writing, in a criminal case in which the prosecutor and the defendant, through counsel, agree to resolve the matter against the defendant, as an alternative to going to trial. In a plea bargain, the defendant usually agrees to plead guilty, to a lesser offense (or fewer offenses) than charged. In the United States, the vast majority of felony cases in both state and federal courts are resolved through plea bargains as opposed to jury trials. In exchange for the defendant's guilty plea, the prosecutor in most cases agrees to accept a reduced jail or prison sentence, probation, or a smaller fine. A plea bargain is subject to approval by the court, and an important consideration is that a judge is not bound by the terms of a plea agreement if, in the judge's opinion, the terms of the plea bargain are not appropriate in the case before him/her.
A defendant may want to accept and the prosecution may wish to offer a plea bargain in order to avoid the uncertainty of the jury trial, as the outcome of a trial will be uncertain for both the defendant as well as the prosecution. A plea agreement may be reached at any time during a criminal case, and even during the trial in some cases. If, pursuant to a plea bargain, the defendant pleads guilty to a misdemeanor offense, the terms of the negotiations will be entered upon the record of the justice or municipal court, before either a justice court justice of the peace or a municipal court judge. Then, the judge will sentence the defendant pursuant to the terms of the negotiations. If, pursuant to a plea bargain, the defendant pleads guilty to a gross misdemeanor or felony offense, the terms of the negotiations will be entered upon the record of the justice court before a justice court justice of the peace, and the final plea and sentencing will be heard in the county's district court, before a district court judge.