Most criminal cases are resolved through a plea bargain, which often occurs before the trial process. It is an agreement initiated by the prosecution, where the defendant pleads guilty to a lower charge or a fewer number of charges, or to obtain a lighter sentence. Due to massive amount of caseloads criminal courts have to handle and the over crowdedness of prisons, the court system encourages plea deals.
The following are the common factors taken into account during plea bargaining:
- The severity of the criminal offense
- The strength of the evidence
- The likelihood of obtaining a guilty verdict
Plea bargaining can occur at any stage of the criminal justice process, whether soon after the defendant's arrest, prior to criminal charges being filed, or when the jury announces the verdict. In some instances, a plea deal can even occur during the appeal process.
The main reason plea bargains are offered is to save the court money and time by avoiding the trial process altogether. Moreover, defendants avoid harsher punishment and the publicity associated with trial.
Plea bargaining is done in private, involving only the defendant, his/her attorney, the prosecutor, and sometimes the judge. This means that the plaintiff is not even in the room. The judge must approve the plea bargain in the courtroom before it is put into place.