If you are charged with a crime, the outcome of that charge could depend on the outcome of a trial. But not all criminal cases go to trial. In fact, most don’t.
Instead, most criminal cases end with a guilty (or sometimes a no-contest) plea. Sometimes, that guilty plea is part of a plea deal. The purpose of a plea deal is to give you certainty when it comes to your sentence.
What is a plea?
As How to Justice explains in more detail here, a plea is the response you give to a criminal charge. You have three different pleas to choose from: guilty, not guilty or no contest.
A guilty plea is exactly what you think it is. You are admitting that you committed the crime as charged by the government.
A not-guilty plea is also exactly what you think it is. You are denying that you committed the crime as charged by the government.
Lastly, a no-contest plea is more complicated. The result is the same as a guilty plea. You will be convicted and sentenced just the same as you would have been if you pleaded guilty. But, unlike a guilty plea, a no-contest plea can’t be used against you in a civil lawsuit.
What is a plea deal?
A plea deal is what you think it is, too. It is an agreement you make with the prosecutor. You agree to plead guilty (or no contest). In exchange for your plea, the prosecutor agrees to something as well. In most cases, the prosecutor agrees to a specific sentence or to drop other charges.
The details for a plea deal depend on the specific case. Sometimes, you might have to plead guilty to the crimes as charged in the deal. Other times, you might agree to plead guilty to a lesser offense. The prosecutor, in turn, will agree to a specific sentence or to drop other charges.
For instance, imagine you are charged with second-degree murder. In some states, a charge like that could land you in prison for life. But the prosecutor could offer you a plea deal: In exchange for pleading guilty to manslaughter, the prosecution would drop the murder charge.
There are pros and cons for both sides in this deal. For the prosecution, they guarantee a conviction and prison time but don’t have to spend money getting ready for trial. For you, you avoid the possibility of a life sentence and might only face 25 years instead.
In many cases, the purpose of the plea deal is straightforward: certainty. You know what your punishment will be no matter how trial or sentencing goes. And, in many cases, you can avoid a sentence that’s significantly more harsh.
But it’s important to know that judges don’t have to accept sentencing agreements either. If a judge won’t accept your sentencing agreement with the prosecutor, you will be able to change your plea. In some cases, plea deals may also require you to testify in other cases or become an informant.
The purpose of a plea deal can be summed up in one word: certainty. A plea deal is the best way to know the outcome of your case and what your sentence would be. But that doesn’t mean you should take one in every case. A hard-working, experienced lawyer should be able to help you make that decision.