Despite what you may have seen on TV, a criminal case will most rarely make it to trial. Instead, many cases are resolved through a process called plea bargaining. The U.S. Bureau of Justice estimates that 90 to 95 percent of federal and state criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining.
A plea bargain, or “plea deal,” is an agreement between you (the defendant) and the prosecution. Usually, you will agree to plead guilty to one or more of the charges against you in exchange for reduced charges or a more lenient sentence.
What exactly your plea deal should contain will depend on the particular facts of your case. Here, we dive into what to generally look out for when negotiating a plea deal or deciding whether or not to accept one.
What are the benefits of a plea deal?
A plea deal saves both sides, the defendant and the state, from enduring a trial. In exchange for pleading guilty or nolo contendere (when the defendant does not admit or deny the charge but accepts the punishment), the prosecution agrees to certain concessions. These commonly include:
- dropping charges;
- reducing a charge from more serious to less serious (such as from a felony to a misdemeanor); and
- recommending that the court impose a lesser sentence.
What does the prosecution get in return? They get a guaranteed “guilty” outcome, without taking the case to trial (where the outcome is unknown).
Even though most criminal cases end in plea deals, prosecutors in North Carolina are not required to offer a defendant a plea deal.
What should be in my plea deal?
Whether or not you accept a plea deal is up to every individual defendant. What looks like a “good” plea deal to one person may be a non-starter for another. Still, others will insist on going to trial, no matter the terms of the plea deal offered.
For anyone negotiating a plea deal or who has been offered one, it is vital to first ensure that what is being offered actually benefits you. It is usually not wise to accept the first plea deal offered by the prosecutors. Instead, try to negotiate. Benefits you receive in a plea deal might include:
- a reduced sentence;
- probation in lieu of prison time;
- a misdemeanor charge instead of a felony charge; and
- the resolution of your case much faster than if you were to drag it out with a trial.
What should I watch out for?
Before accepting a plea deal, it is best to make sure the deal is truly in your best interests. Prosecutors represent North Carolina, not you, so it is their job to offer a deal that is in the State’s best interests, not yours.
A North Carolina criminal defense attorney can assist you with reviewing the deal and negotiating with the prosecution. With a skilled North Carolina criminal defense attorney on your side, you will be more likely to strike a favorable plea deal.