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What is a plea bargain and how does a defendant benefit from it?

Criminal cases in West Virginia do not always go to trial, and many cases are resolved when both sides agree on a plea bargain. Plea bargaining refers to the negotiation process used when either side proposes a potential resolution to a case.

When a plea bargain occurs, the defendant usually pleads guilty to one out of several charges. The charge a defendant pleads guilty to may be less severe than other charges, and the prosecution might agree to recommend leniency when a judge sentences a defendant. A defendant benefits because a plea deal usually involves less time, cost and publicity, and defendants also accept a plea bargain to avoid worse consequences.

Courts and the prosecution also benefit from a plea bargain. The prosecution suffers less expense and gets a conviction instead of an unknown outcome in trial, and courts are not burdened with a trial for every crime. Courts make the final decision when it comes to accepting some plea bargains, and a judge can sentence a defendant without following the prosecution's recommendation.

While plea bargaining is more private than the court process, victim rights statutes sometimes entitle a victim to provide input during plea negotiations. Plea bargains are announced publicly in court, but records may be expunged if a defendant completes probation. Accepting probation generally does not require a trial.

Criminal convictions can follow an individual throughout life, so it could be very important to find a criminal defense lawyer when charged with a misdemeanor or felony. Every case is unique and involves different situations, charges and potential penalties, so no one can predict the best outcome before negotiations or a trial starts. Some plea bargains may allow for diversion and result in community service, rehabilitation or restitution.

Source: American Bar Association, "How Courts Work", November 02, 2014

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Law Office of P. Zachary Stewart
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