Q: What is a plea bargain?
A: A plea is a person’s formal response to a criminal or traffic charge. A person charged with a criminal or traffic offense (the defendant) may be offered a plea “bargain” (or plea deal) in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a less serious offense or only some of the charges and, in exchange, the prosecutor is not required to conduct a full trial to prove the defendant guilty of the original charged offense.
Q: That doesn’t sound like justice; why doesn’t the prosecutor just do the trials?
A: Trials are both time-consuming and expensive. For the government to conduct a trial for even a relatively minor traffic offense can require a trial by jury, involving eight jurors and several witnesses. Such a trial can take a day or more to conduct, and the government must pay the jurors, the judge, the prosecutor and the police officers’ salaries or overtime. In 2011, 120,964 criminal misdemeanor and traffic cases were filed in the Franklin County Municipal Court alone. That court has 15 judges and about 30 prosecutors, and the prosecutors and judges handle civil cases as well. It would not be possible for the government to try all of these cases in a year, so plea bargaining is one way to make sure violations of law are addressed, given the limited prosecutorial and judicial resources available.
Q: So how does a prosecutor decide what deal to offer, or whether to offer a deal at all?
A: A lot can go into that decision. One of the key questions is the quality of evidence available for trial. The defense attorney and the prosecutor will both know what evidence the state can introduce at trial to convince the jury that a defendant committed the offense charged. If the evidence is rock solid, the prosecutor may not offer a deal at all. If it appears the evidence might not be sufficient to convince a jury, the prosecutor may offer a plea bargain. Even if the prosecutor offers a good deal, the defense attorney may think the evidence is so weak that a jury would not convict. In such a situation, the defense attorney may advise the defendant not to take what, on the surface, looks like a good deal. Some other considerations that inform the prosecutor’s decision include the seriousness of the original offense, the penalty for the original offense compared to the penalty for the reduced offense, the likelihood that the defendant will offend again, and the availability of witnesses for trial.
Q: What about the reverse? If I’m a defendant, how do I decide if I’m getting a good deal?
A: Your attorney can help you decide whether a prosecutor’s plea offer is a good bargain for you. Often, plea bargains include a sentencing recommendation by the prosecutor. Often, but by no means always, the judge will accept the prosecutor’s recommendation. Therefore, as a rule, the plea decision is based upon balancing the likelihood of a conviction (and the likely resulting penalty) if there’s a trial against the known penalty associated with pleading to the reduced charge.
Q: What happens if I decide I don’t want to go through with a plea bargain after agreeing to it?
A: Generally, you may change your plea at any time before a judge enters a final judgment in the case. If you are thinking about entering a guilty plea, you should be aware that it is always extremely difficult (and often impossible) to “take back” a guilty plea once it’s been made and the judge has imposed a sentence. This is true even if you pled guilty as part of a plea bargain and sentencing recommendation, and the judge imposes a penalty more severe than the one recommended by the prosecution (which is always a possibility).
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was originally prepared by attorney Robert A. Beattey, and updated by Douglas E. Riddell Jr. and Bridget Purdue Riddell of Riddell Law LLC in Columbus.