The majority of criminal cases are resolved through plea agreements in Fresno. Plea negotiations are a "routine" method for disposing of cases, especially in the criminal justice system. It is estimate that 90 to 95 percent cases in federal and state courts are resolved through plea bargaining.
Because plea bargaining is a common practice in all criminal courts, it is important to understand the entire process. The United States implemented plea-bargaining primarily as a time saving device for disposing of criminal cases in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the 1920s, plea-bargaining evolved into an accepted practice we know today.
There is not a standard definition for plea-bargaining, but generally, plea bargaining is any negotiations between a defendant, either with or without assistance of counsel, and the prosecuting attorney, whereby a criminal charge or potential criminal charge is resolved in some fashion other than by a trial on the merits. In plea bargaining, both parties promise to do something or to refrain from doing something with respect to the matter.
Plea-bargaining results when a criminal defendant negotiates with the prosecutor to reduce charges or sentences. In exchange for a guilty plea, the prosecutor has many options. The prosecutor may reduce the original charges to less serious charges; drop collateral charges; assure the defendant a lenient sentence, recommend a sentencing or remain silent at sentencing. For example, a driver accused of driving while intoxicated (DUI) may negotiate a deal to plead guilty to reckless driving while consuming alcohol, a less serious offense that carries a more lenient sentence.
The reasoning for plea negotiations is to save time and expense, resolve cases are more quickly, and avoid uncertainty at trial. Defendants’ risk of harsher punishment at trial is the predominant concern, along with a promises of immediate release from custody, shorter sentences, or reduction in charges, especially when a felony is reduced to a misdemeanor.
The likelihood of plea bargaining increases when certain factors exist. A defendant will be more inclined to enter a plea when the crime is serious, when the defendant has a prior criminal record, the evidence against the defendant is strong, the detention of the individual; and, the use of a public defender versus a private attorney.
There are many proponents to plea bargaining, but it also leads to major criticism. In a previously article I wrote fifteen years ago, the same criticisms exists today:
First, there is not a balancing of bargaining power. Prosecutors have considerably more power in the bargaining process than the defendant. This unfair bargaining power permits prosecutors to intrude on judicial functions. With successful negotiations, the criminal justice system allows prosecutors to predetermine the sentence a particular defendant receives.
Second, plea negotiations allow practitioners to rapidly finish cases without taking into account the defendant's best interest. These bargaining practices become a daily habit for a large percentage of prosecutors and defense attorneys. The ease of pleading defendants enables practitioners to utilize the negotiation process as an initial mechanism, instead of a viable option.
The last major criticism of plea-bargaining is the general notion of how it enables offenders to receive lighter punishments in exchange for guilty pleas. The public, the primary advocate opposing negotiation agreements, complains that criminal defendants "get away" with their criminal behavior. Defendants are only receiving inconsequential sentences compared to the sentence they would normally receive without plea-bargaining. Critics believe these criminal defendants do not receive their just punishment for the crimes they commit. The legislature, responding to this attack by the public, continues to make attempts at curbing the use of plea-bargaining." For example, in 1982, the California voters approved Proposition 8, also known as the "Victims Bill of Rights," yet plea-bargaining continues to thrive.
Plea bargaining is an inherent part of the court system and banning the use of plea bargaining is unrealistic. A more realistic solution is to allow judges and defense attorneys to have a greater role to level the balance of power the prosecutor has in plea agreements. In some counties, judges refuse to be a part of plea negotiations, which hinder the entire courts. Defendants are forced to wait trial longer and are denied their due process rights.
When a judge becomes a part of the plea bargaining process, defendants can expect an overall benefit because it evens the playing field. Judges that mediate the negotiations between the parties are able to hear the issues and problems with the case in order to give guidance to achieve a just result. The court may point out the weaknesses of each party’s cases, may make recommendations to the parties as to the case, along with the possible sentencing the defendant may face by going to trial.
Even if the district attorney refuses to plea bargain, the defendant may attempt to obtain an indicated from the court. Judges may not reduce charges on its own motion, but a judge may reduce a sentence in many cases, as long as the court follows the sentencing guidelines. When that occurs, defendants plead to the charges and the judge will give the sentence originally indicated.
The best way to decide if plea bargaining is right for you is to discuss your case with your lawyer. If you were recently arrested, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer that understands to court and plea bargaining before your decide if it is the correct decision for your case. It is important that you do not enter any plea until you have reviewed the evidence against you and there is sufficient evidence against you. If you have any questions about your case, call us today to discuss your case.