In the movies, when someone is wrongly accused of a crime, they go to trial. Their brilliant attorney proves their innocence, and they walk out of the courtroom a free man or woman. In the real world, things are very different.
Less than 10% of criminal cases make it to trial in the US. The vast majority are settled by plea bargains, also known as plea deals, where the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, so the case does not go to trial. There are can be advantages to plea deals, but often they benefit people other than the defendant:
- The judge and court system: The court system is overburdened. A staggering one-third of all Americans have been convicted of criminal charges at some point. Judges and other court officials will be delighted to minimize the number of cases going to trial.
- The prosecution: If you want to boast of a 100% success rate as a prosecutor, you try to avoid going to trial, where you may lose. It is in your interests to encourage a plea deal out of the defendant; it maintains your record intact.
So what is in it for you as a defendant? Why would you plead guilty or no contest to a crime you did not commit. Or, if you did, why would you throw away the possibility that you could mount a successful trial defense and be acquitted?
For some people, it is about money. They cannot afford to hire a skilled defense attorney to go to trial. For others, it is a lack of faith in the system. If you have seen friends and family convicted, you may not rate your chances of succeeding at trial very highly, so you prefer to take the certainty of the lower sentence and charges, rather than risk a severer punishment or more severe charges. Before you give up your right to a trial, seek legal help to understand if a plea bargain is your best option.