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How do plea bargains work in criminal cases?

When you are facing a criminal charge, you might be presented with an offer for a plea bargain. In some cases, your attorney might approach the prosecution with a plea deal. Plea deals are the most common way to end a criminal case in the United States. Any defendant who is considering a plea bargain should understand some finer points about this method of ending criminal cases.

What is a plea bargain?

A plea bargain is an agreement that prosecutors and defendants come to instead of taking a case to trial. In most cases, the plea deal involves the defendant pleading guilty to some or all charges. In exchange for that plea, the prosecution agrees to certain terms. For example, Jared Fogle's plea deal on federal child pornography charges included the defense agreeing not to seek less than 5 years in prison. The prosecutors agreed to seek not more than 12.5 years. It also included Fogle paying restitution to the victims.

Does the judge have to abide by the agreements?

Generally, judges don't have to abide by a plea agreement. In federal cases, such as the Fogle case, judges have a wide berth to decide how to handle sentencing. Anyone who is considering a plea deal should seek to understand how the plea deal might be handled in court.

For people who want to avoid going through a trial, a plea deal might be an acceptable option. Understanding your rights, the terms of the plea bargain and the possible penalties if you go to trial might help you to decide if a plea deal is right for your case.

Source: FindLaw, "Plea Bargains: In Depth," accessed Aug. 19, 2015

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