Written by Avvo Staff

What is a plea bargain?

A common way to resolve criminal cases without a trial.

What is a plea bargain? If you’ve been charged with a crime, it’s likely the prosecutor will offer you one of these deals. Before you accept, be sure you understand exactly what this defense strategy is and what you are agreeing to. A plea bargain may help you avoid harsher consequences, but also means admitting guilt.

The 3 types of plea bargains

A plea bargain is a compromise deal between you and the prosecutor. There are 3 different types of plea bargains:

  • Charge bargaining. This is the most common kind of deal. It reduces your charges (or drops some charges) in exchange for your guilty plea. For example, you may agree to plead guilty to manslaughter instead of murder.

  • Sentence bargaining. In this deal you plead guilty to the original charge, but you get a lighter sentence than you otherwise would.

  • Fact bargaining. This isn’t used much, and not all courts even allow it. With this deal you admit to certain facts about the crime while the prosecutor agrees not to enter other facts into evidence. In most cases, you and your lawyer work out a plea bargain with the prosecutor. A judge then has to approve it.

Benefits of plea bargains

Why accept a plea bargain if you’ll still have a criminal record and may have to serve jail time? Because trials are stressful, time-consuming, and offer no guarantees. Even if you Plea bargains, on the other hand, have potential advantages that may appeal to you.

  • Certainty and quick resolution. Instead of risking the maximum sentence after trial—months or even years from now—a plea deal lets you know right now exactly what your immediate future holds.

  • Lesser charges. If you have to have a criminal record, a lesser charge is generally less damaging. This is especially true if you plead a felony down to a misdemeanor. Then you’ll still be able to do things convicted felons can’t, like own a gun, vote, or get/keep certain professional licenses. And if you’re facing a third strike, you can avoid the significant prison time that would entail.

  • A shorter sentence. If you get a sentence bargain, you’ll spend less time away from your family and your life. Depending on the deal you make, you may even get probation and/or community service instead of jail.

  • Get out of jail. If you are in custody rather than out on bail, signing a plea agreement can mean you’ll be free (although possibly on probation) as soon as the judge accepts the deal.

Plea bargaining can also have other benefits, like avoiding publicity or protecting other people connected to the crime.

Consequences of accepting a plea bargain

Although plea bargains can be the best deal for some defendants, they’re not as simple as they might seem. It’s important you understand exactly what you are signing and the consequences of accepting.

  • Loss of a professional license. For some people, pleading guilty may not be a good idea. For example, in some states you may have to give up your professional license after a conviction, sometimes even for a misdemeanor. Doctors, real estate brokers, and accountants all require a professional license, for example.

  • Deportation. If you’re not a US citizen you may be deported. If your deal includes probation, make sure you understand the terms. Violating any terms can invalidate the entire agreement. Then you may have to serve the maximum prison sentence for the crime you plead guilty to.

  • Loss of your right to appeal. When signing a plea agreement you usually give up your right to appeal. This means you can’t appeal any issues about your case or your sentence. It’s a good idea to have an experienced criminal defense attorney negotiating for you. This can help you get the best deal possible given your specific circumstances.

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