What Is a Plea Deal?

A plea deal — or plea bargain — means any negotiation, bargaining, or discussion between you, your attorney, and the prosecutor that results in an agreement where you plead guilty in exchange for any promises or commitments made by the prosecutor or judge.

Essentially, you plead guilty to another crime to avoid the harsh punishments of the offense you were initially charged with.

What Happens When You Accept a Plea Bargain?

Once you accept a plea deal, you’ve acted on your end of the bargain. Now, the judge and prosecutor must do their part by reducing your charges according to your agreement. With reduced charges, your overall sentence decreases as well as the accompanying fines.

What Are the Pros & Cons of Accepting a Plea Deal?

The obvious downside to a plea bargain is that you have to plead guilty to a crime and accept a conviction. For many, admitting guilt could have lasting effects.

For example, any conviction for non-U.S. citizens could result in their removal. A criminal conviction could also alter your life in other ways, such as difficulty finding housing or a job.

While this isn’t the outcome you hope for, the pros might outweigh the cons. Even though you know you’re innocent, a trial could be unpredictable, resulting in a much harsher sentence.

Depending on the evidence the prosecution has against you, it might be in your best interest to admit guilt for a lesser offense to avoid significant jail time and hefty fines. Assessing the risk involved in your case and the penalties you face could help you decide whether to move forward and fight your charges or accept a plea bargain.

What Are Common Types of Plea Deals?

A plea deal could reduce your sentence in different ways depending on the type of bargain you agree on. Your case might involve the following types of plea deals:

  • Charge Bargaining – This involves pleading guilty to a charge less severe than your initial one.
  • Sentence Bargaining – Pleading guilty after you and the prosecutor agree on the sentence the prosecutor will argue.
  • Count Bargaining – Similar to charge bargaining, this involves pleading guilty to one or more of your charges and having the rest dropped.
  • Fact Bargaining – This involves the prosecution leaving out facts that could increase a sentence. This is common in drug crimes where the amount involved significantly increases your penalties.

What Is the Process for Obtaining a Plea Bargain?

Plea bargain negotiations occur early in the criminal justice process during the pretrial phase. Here, the prosecution and defense meet to review the case details and the charges against you.

Evidence plays a central role in this process, and the prosecution reveals the strength of their case to support your charges.

At this point, your attorney disputes this evidence and argues for a lesser charge. After negotiations, the judge determines your sentence, and you could accept the plea deal or move forward to trial.

How to Get a Better Plea Bargain

The success of your plea bargain hinges on the severity of your charges, the strength of the prosecutor’s evidence, and your attorney’s ability to refute that evidence and negotiate a deal. However, some charges might prohibit you from obtaining a plea deal unless certain circumstances exist.

For example, California Penal Code § 1192.7 states that plea bargaining is prohibited for any case where the defendant is charged with a serious felony, any felony involving a firearm, or an offense where the defendant was driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The law goes on to prohibit plea bargains for violent sex crimes as well. However, a plea bargain might be accepted in both these cases if there is insufficient evidence to prove your case, testimony from a material witness cannot be obtained, or a reduction or dismissal wouldn’t result in a substantial change in your sentence.