Many successful criminal prosecutions in the United States end not with jury trials, but with plea bargains. Plea bargains are agreements between defendants and prosecutors where defendants agree to plead guilty to some or all of the charges against them in exchange for concessions from the prosecutors. These agreements allow prosecutors to focus their time and resources on other cases, and reduce the number of trials that judges need to oversee.
In plea bargains, prosecutors usually agree to reduce defendants' punishment. They often accomplish this by reducing the number or severity of the charges against defendants. They might also agree to recommend that defendants receive reduced sentences. Some plea bargains require defendants to do more than simply plead guilty. For example, prosecutors often offer favorable plea bargains to defendants who agree to testify for the state in cases against other defendants.
In some jurisdictions, prosecutors and defendants can work with judges to predetermine what sentence the defendants’ will get if they accept a plea bargain. In most jurisdictions, however, judges’ role in plea bargaining is limited. For example, federal judges retain final authority over sentencing decisions, and are not bound by prosecutors’ recommendations, even if the recommendations are part of plea bargains. Similarly, federal judges may not be directly involved in plea bargain negotiations.
Although plea bargaining allows the criminal justice system to conserve resources, it is controversial. Some commentators believe that it is inappropriate in that it allows defendants to get off too easily. Others argue that it is too coercive and undermines important constitutional rights. Plea bargaining does require defendants to waive three rights protected by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments: the right to a jury trial, the right against self-incrimination, and the right to confront hostile witnesses. The Supreme Court, however, has repeatedly rejected arguments that plea bargaining is unconstitutional. See, e.g., Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742 (1970). But it has held that defendants’ guilty pleas must be voluntary, and that defendants may only plead guilty if they know the consequences of doing so. McCarthy v. United States 394 U.S. 459 (1969)
Courts treat plea bargains as contracts between prosecutors and defendants. If a defendants breaks a plea bargain, the prosecutor is no longer bound by his or her side of the deal. If a prosecutor reneges on plea bargains, defendants may seek relief from the judge. The judge might let them withdraw their guilty pleas, may force the prosecutor to follow the plea bargain, or may apply some other remedy.