Plea Bargain

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PLEA BARGAIN. Plea bargaining is the process of negotiation between the parties in a criminal case involving the defendant's agreement to plead guilty in return for the prosecutor's concession reducing either the sentence or the seriousness of the charge. Typically, more than 75 percent of criminal cases end in guilty pleas, almost all resulting from plea bargaining. In federal courts, virtually all defendants who plead guilty qualify for a 20 percent reduction in the length of their sentence.

Prosecutors benefit from plea bargaining by eliminating the risk of an acquittal and saving on the costs associated with the time and elaborate procedures a trial entails. Some plea bargains also obligate the defendant to provide information or other cooperation to law enforcement. Defendants benefit by reducing the uncertainty associated with trial and avoiding harsher punishment. In some plea bargains, the defendant must bear a degree of risk because the judge, who typically is not a part of the negotiation, still decides what sentence the defendant receives. In these cases, the benefit to the defendant is the likelihood that the judge will accept the prosecutor's recommendation that a charge be dismissed or that the defendant receive a lighter sentence.

The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that plea bargaining is an important component of our judicial system and that it is legitimate for prosecutors to use their power to persuade defendants to plead guilty. Plea bargaining is constitutional so long as prosecutors perform all the terms of the agreement and do not threaten defendants with charges unsupported by probable cause.


Supreme Court Cases

Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63 (1977).

Bordenkircher v. Hayes, 434 U.S. 357 (1978).

Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742 (1970).

Santobello v. New York, 404 U.S. 257 (1971).

Federal Laws

United States Sentencing Guidelines, 18 United States Code Appendix, §3E1.1.

Rossman, David. Criminal Law Advocacy, Vol. 2. Guilty Pleas. New York: Matthew Bender, 1999.


See alsoJury Trial .