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What are the benefits of plea bargaining?

The primary benefit of plea bargaining from the defendant's perspective is the opportunity to receive a much shorter sentence. Another benefit of plea bargaining is that it saves resources. The criminal courts are often crowded, prosecutors' workloads are demanding, and it also saves the time of police officers, who do not have to make it to as many court appearances.

What are possible disadvantages of plea bargaining?

The disadvantages of plea bargaining include abandoning the traditional system of adversary justice in a courtroom trial, the possibility of manipulation of defendants by prosecutors, and great disparity in sentences. Some critics charge that the plea bargaining process also leads to criminal defendants receiving overly lenient sentences.

Once a prosecutor offers a plea bargain can he or she renege on the deal?

No, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear in Santobello v. New York (1971; see LegalSpeak p. 160) that a prosecutor cannot renege on a plea agreement once the agreement has been reached. The Court explained that a prosecutor must fulfill the promises made to a defendant, writing that: "a constant factor is that when a plea rests in any significant degree on a promise or agreement of the prosecutor, so that it can be said to be part of the inducement or consideration, such promise must be fulfilled."

Does a judge have to accept a plea bargain and give the defendant the sentence offered by the prosecution?

No, a judge does not have to accept a plea bargain reached between the prosecution and the defense. The U.S. Supreme Court wrote in Santobello v. New York (1971; see LegalSpeak p. 160) that: "There is, of course, no absolute right to have a guilty plea accepted." The Nevada Supreme Court explained in a recent case: "Judicial power to reject plea bargains serves to modify and condition the absolute power of the prosecutor, consistent with the doctrine of separation of powers, by establishing a check on the abuse of prosecutorial (executive) prerogatives." However, as a matter of course, judges most of the time accept plea bargains. Courts ordinarily do not second-guess prosecutorial decisions in the plea-bargaining process.

What is an information?

An information is a document which includes an accusation of formal charges of criminal conduct against a defendant. It is a common method of introducing criminal charges against defendants in many states. The prosecution files the information and a

LegalSpeak: Santobello v. New York (1971)

The disposition of criminal charges by agreement between the prosecutor and the accused, sometimes loosely called "plea bargaining," is an essential component of the administration of justice. Properly administered, it is to be encouraged. If every criminal charge were subjected to a full-scale trial, the States and the Federal Government would need to multiply by many times the number of judges and court facilities.

Disposition of charges after plea discussions is not only an essential part of the process but a highly desirable part for many reasons. It leads to prompt and largely final disposition of most criminal cases; it avoids much of the corrosive impact of enforced idleness during pretrial confinement for those who are denied release pending trial; it protects the public from those accused persons who are prone to continue criminal conduct even while on pretrial release; and, by shortening the time between charge and disposition, it enhances whatever may be the rehabilitative prospects of the guilty when they are ultimately imprisoned.

A forensic scientist tests for fingerprints. A possible lack of evidence tying the accused to a crime is one preliminary hearings are held to decide if a case should go to trial (iStock).

A forensic scientist tests for fingerprints. A possible lack of evidence tying the accused to a crime is one preliminary hearings are held to decide if a case should go to trial (iStock).

judge considers the information at a preliminary hearing. This is the most common method of proceeding with the prosecution of criminal cases in many states and differs greatly from the grand jury process. In many states a prosecutor has the option of proceeding with an information or with a grand jury indictment.

 
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