As a prosecutor, I get a lot of questions. One of the most frequently asked questions involves the plea bargain, or “plea deal,” as some call it.
In fact, the question was posed to me just this week as to why a plea was offered in a case, so I thought it a good time to revisit the issue.
The following information was originally published in my newsletter several years ago. It still rings true today. And while I cannot go into specifics about each and every case that results in a change of plea, or comment on current or ongoing cases, I believe the following will be helpful in explaining the change of plea process.
First, let me say that being a prosecutor is my passion. I believe with every fiber of my being that people should be held accountable for their actions.
An admission of guilt (change of plea) holds guilty parties accountable, while helping victims become survivors. I’m proud to be part of that process.
I know this is important to others as well because I’m often asked why we negotiate. Why would we “deal” or let someone “get off easy?” Others believe plea bargains are used to force convictions on innocent defendants.
For the record, no prosecutor would ever force a conviction on an innocent party. The goal is always to keep the community safe, serve justice for victims, and hold guilty parties accountable to the extent the law will allow.
Plea bargains are useful legal tools used in every court, every day. They are an efficient way to prosecute without the cost and time of trial, however, they’re not taken lightly and are never done as a shortcut.
There are a myriad of factors to consider. Sometimes it’s as simple as further investigation showing the original charge is not warranted. Therefore a plea to a lesser offense is just.
In cases with multiple charges, defendants may plead guilty to some charges while others are dismissed. In these and all instances, prosecutors must weigh the evidence against what can be proven and what is admissible in court.
Sometimes it’s the victims who request a plea agreement. For emotionally traumatized victims, a plea spares them reliving the experience in a public courtroom.
In reality, every crime and every victim is different, and “justice” for each situation is different. Inevitably, when a sentence is handed down, some will be happy, others will not.
The truth is, we are bound by the law and that doesn’t always suit everyone. Sentences can only be so long, according to law. Legislators make laws. Judges decide sentences based on laws.
Prosecutors have a legal obligation to “do justice.” When negotiating a plea, we consult with law enforcement. We make every effort to communicate with victims so they understand why an offer is being made and the difference between that and a trial.
Unlike trial, when a defendant pleads guilty, they have limited ability to appeal. This means victims are spared an ongoing ordeal in the judicial system. They don’t have to take time off work (or from family) to appear in court. They still have the opportunity to address the court and the case is over. They can begin healing.
To many, a plea bargain is a viable option. That said, I’m acutely aware that every time I enter into a negotiated agreement I face criticism from the public. It’s true, the prosecutor has the final say on whether a plea agreement is reached. It’s also true we’ll never please everyone. The most important truth though, is that we take this responsibility very seriously and always proceed with what we believe is the best way to prosecute the case responsibly for all involved.
Carol O’Brien is Delaware County Prosecutor.