What is a Plea Bargain and Why is it Used in Utah Criminal Cases?

Movies and TV shows give the false impression that most criminal trials result in a dramatic pronouncement of guilt or innocence.  In reality, the vast majority of criminal cases terminate with plea bargains, which are also called plea deals or plea agreements.  Plea bargains are controversial, and there are strong arguments for and against their use.   In this article, Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson will explain how plea bargains work, the pros and cons of plea bargaining, the different types of plea deals which may be offered, and the ethical debate surrounding the plea bargain system.

What Are Plea Bargains? Are There Different Types?

When most people think of a criminal case, they imagine jurors debating whether proof beyond a reasonable doubt exists against the defendant.  However, most cases resolve in a very different way: through plea bargaining.

Plea bargains are extremely common in all types of criminal cases, and in fact, it’s rare for a case not to be resolved through plea bargaining.  According to a 2011 report compiled by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), “While there are no exact estimates of the proportion of cases that are resolved through plea bargaining, scholars estimate that about 90 to 95% of both federal and state court cases are resolved through this process.”

Put simply, a plea bargain is a deal between the defense and the prosecution.  The defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge, or to plead guilty to just some of the charges if multiple offenses have been alleged.  In return, the prosecutor agrees to seek a lighter, more lenient sentence.

While plea deals usually take place in a private negotiation setting, prosecutors do not have free run to grant plea deals as they see fit.  On the contrary, most agreements must be approved by the court presiding over the case.

Plea agreements are not uniform across all criminal cases.  There are three distinct types of plea deals, listed below from least to most common:

  • Fact Bargaining – The defendant agrees to stipulate to (officially acknowledge) some facts, so that other facts will not be raised as evidence. Fact bargaining is generally disfavored by courts.
  • Sentence Bargaining – The defendant agrees to plead guilty to the charges, but receives a lighter sentence than normal. Sentence bargaining is not permitted in certain jurisdictions.
  • Charge Bargaining – The defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge on the condition that the more serious charges will be dismissed. For instance, a defendant might plead guilty to simple assault instead of aggravated assault, or manslaughter instead of murder.

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Are Plea Deals Ethical? What About Innocent Defendants?

Plea deals have supporters and detractors.  Proponents argue that plea deals:

  • Help to keep congested courts running efficiently.
  • Cut down on prosecutors’ caseloads, thereby freeing up prosecutors to focus on the most serious felonies, like rape and murder.
  • Reduce legal expenses for the defendant.
  • Spare victims and eye-witnesses the trauma of testifying.

While these are all valid points, opponents would counter that plea deals are ethically questionable because they encourage innocent defendants to admit guilt (and accept punishment) for crimes they didn’t commit, rather than risk the uncertainty of going to trial.

As the BJA notes in the report cited above, “Many researchers have found that those who go to trial are more likely to receive harsher sentences than those who accept a plea when comparable offenses are considered…  Additionally, several methodologically sound studies have found that those who pled guilty were more likely to receive lighter sentences than those who would have gone to trial.”

According to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, which provides numerous examples of innocent defendants who accepted plea bargains only to later be exonerated, “It is unclear how many of the more than 96% of defendants who are convicted through pleas of guilt each year are actually innocent of the charged offenses, but it is clear that plea bargaining has an innocence problem.”  The study acknowledges that “uncertainty persists regarding exactly how susceptible innocent defendants are to bargained justice.”

Ultimately, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer.  Numerous factors play into the decision to refuse or accept a plea deal.  A skilled defense attorney will evaluate all possible outcomes to determine the best course of action for the defendant.

If you’ve been charged with a crime in Salt Lake City or elsewhere in Utah, you need experienced legal counsel on your side.  To set up a free, confidential case evaluation, call criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287 today.  Darwin has over 16 years of experience handling misdemeanors and felonies throughout Utah, including weapons crimes and drug charges.