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 in which 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 a defendant's punishment. They often accomplish this by reducing the number of charges of the 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.
According to the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance, "The overwhelming majority (90 to 95 percent) of cases result in plea bargaining."
The Role of Judges
In some jurisdictions, prosecutors and defendants can work with judges to predetermine what sentence the defendants will get if the defendants accept plea bargains. 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.
Controversy Surrounding Plea Bargains
Although plea bargaining allows the criminal justice system to conserve resources, the plea bargains are controversial. Some commentators oppose plea bargains, as they feel that plea bargains allow defendants to shirk responsibility for the crimes they have committed. Others argue that plea bargains are too coercive and undermine 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 witnesses. The Supreme Court, however, in numerous cases (such as Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742 (1970) has held that plea bargaining is constitutional. The Supreme Court, however, 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).
Violating a Plea Bargain
Courts treat plea bargains as contracts between prosecutors and defendants. A defendant breaking a plea bargain is akin to a breach of contract, which will result in the prosecutor no longer being bound by his or her obligation in the plea deal. If a prosecutor reneges on plea bargains, defendants may seek relief from the judge. The judge might let the defendant withdraw the guilty pleas, may force the prosecutor to follow the plea bargain, or may apply some other remedy.
For more on plea bargains, see this Northwestern Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology article, this Harvard Law Review article, and this University of Chicago Faculty Scholarship article.