People often express concerns about “plea bargains” in criminal cases. They wonder, “Why should a criminal get a bargain? Doesn’t anyone take crime seriously?” In fact, everyone in the criminal justice system takes it very seriously.
So what is a “plea bargain?” It is an agreement made between the prosecutor and the defendant as to how a criminal case will be resolved. It would be more accurately described as a negotiated plea agreement.
I sometimes compare it to the concept of interest on a loan. When you take out a loan what you receive is the time-discounted value of the money that you will pay back. Assume you borrow $1,000 today and will pay back a total of $1,200 in the next three years. That $200 difference, the interest, represents the discount the lender negotiates to get something more later.
In a plea agreement, prosecutors also sometimes offer discounts to obtain something else. The discounts typically involve a less serious charge or a less severe sentence. There are numerous valid reasons for doing so.
First, no trial is a slam dunk. Guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and anything can happen in a trial. Sometimes witnesses forget what happened, change their testimony, or don’t show up for trial.
Many years ago I prosecuted a misdemeanor assault case. The victim both changed her story and refused to attend the trial. We settled on a guilty plea to a lesser charge. This meant that the state got a conviction and the defendant avoided something more serious.
Sometimes further investigation reveals that the charged crime wasn’t committed and the case is discounted to a crime that was committed.
In other cases, discounts are offered to avoid a greater harm. Defendants have a constitutional right to confront their accusers. Forcing a victim to publicly re-live a crime can be very traumatizing — especially for children. An agreement to a lesser crime or sentence can still serve the state’s interest in obtaining justice while avoiding re-victimizing a vulnerable person.
Discounts are sometimes offered to defendants who agree to cooperate in other cases that involve more serious matters. For example, a discount might be offered in a low-level drug case if it means that the prosecutor can charge someone higher up in a drug ring.
Additionally, by law, victims are informed of all plea offers, what they mean, and how the victim could be affected. Prosecutors then consider the victim’s input before plea agreements are finalized.
Plea agreements also benefit the public. Resolving cases efficiently allows prosecutors to focus on the most serious matters. Also, citizens aren’t needlessly called for jury service, and police can get back on the road rather than sitting in court waiting for their cases to be called.
The overarching reason for all proper plea agreements is an attempt to achieve a greater good and greater justice.
Finally, all plea agreements are reviewed and approved by a judge to insure that justice is done in each individual case.
Judge Greg Galler is chambered in Washington County. If you have a general question about the law or courts for Judge Galler, send your question to the editor of this newspaper. Learn more about Judge Galler, or listen to a podcast of his columns at judgegreggaller.com.