What Exactly is a Plea Bargain?

I think it’s safe to say that almost all Texans are familiar with the term “plea bargain.” It’s used in film and on television and most people have a basic understanding of what it is and what it means. However, along with many other legal terms, the majority of people don’t have a detailed understanding of what a plea bargain is or when it might come into play. I wanted to take a few moments to explain what a plea bargain is, when it is used and how common they really are.

To begin with, let me start by saying that plea bargains are very common in Texas and throughout the rest of the country. Plea bargains are associated with about 90% of all criminal cases.

So, what are plea bargains? Well, they are really just an agreement between the prosecution and the defendant. They usually involve the defendant pleading guilty in order for him or her to receive a lesser offense or sentence. In reality, a plea bargain establishes a kind of mutual agreement regarding both the strengths and weaknesses of the prosecutor’s case. Here’s the thing, courts encourage parties to work together to solve the issue, rather than go to trial. But, if that’s true, do plea bargains always mean justice is being served? Probably not. Then again, if both parties agree to the terms of the plea bargain, then maybe plea bargains are a good idea.

Ok, so why do courts encourage plea bargains rather than going to court to dispute the issue in front of a judge and jury? There are a few main reasons. First, courts are overcrowded. If plea bargains and other forms of settlement were not allowed, courts would be far too overburdened. Realistically, it would be impossible for every single case to go to trial. Next, prosecutors are also overwhelmed with cases. Resources are already quite scarce. Third, defendants are able to save time, money, and other resources by not having to proceed to trial. In sum, plea bargains can be both efficient and effective for all involved.

On the other hand, are plea bargains truly effective for all involved? Meaning, the court, prosecution, and defendant may be better off, but what about society as a whole? Take for instance a case where a defendant is charged with homicide. Let’s say that the prosecution doesn’t have a very strong case against the defendant and offers a plea bargain that includes the defendant pleading to assault. The defendant serves a short prison sentence and is then released. Now, in this case the defendant might be happy because he was able to plead to a lesser offense, the prosecution can check that case of their list and the court can move onto the next issue. But, is that in the best interest of society? Should we even be concerned about that?

Another way to think about it is whether the defendant felt pressured to plead to something he didn’t do just to get the case done with? Is it fair for the defendant to plead guilty to a lesser offense just to avoid a potential guilty verdict if he is truly innocent of all charges? These are serious considerations and it they are things that you need to discuss with your defense attorney if you find yourself arrested and charged with a crime in Texas.