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The Role of a Plea Bargaining in Criminal Justice


Plea bargaining is associated with the criminal justice system of a country. According to Fisher (2004, p.1), plea bargaining was regarded as an invading barbarian since it was able to overweigh the jury at times. Therefore, plea-bargaining is a very useful tool that lawyers use to cut deals (Fisher, 2004, p. 3). However, it can be a dilemma for most lawyers when they have to make a choice on striking a favorable deal for their current client or maintaining a good relationship with the prosecutor in case of other trials in the future. In some cases, lawyers have been found to deceive their clients to plead guilty mainly for their economic gain. A plea-bargain results from the prosecutor’s offer to the defendant to plead guilty to the criminal charges the defendant is accused of, which could result in a lighter sentence other than a maximum sentence.

A plea bargain assists a criminal defendant to avoid being convicted in a trial for the original crime, which could be serious and lead to a long jail sentence. Generally, the roles of plea bargaining may be summarized by the administrative theory and shadow-of-trial theory. In addition, a judicial process has to be followed when administering plea bargaining agreements in order to ensure the interests of all the parties are addressed. However, there are several ethical issues linked to plea bargaining affecting the victim, defendant and the judicial system. All these issues plus the application of plea bargaining in modern society are discussed in this paper.

The Role of a Plea Bargaining in Criminal Justice

According to Cole (2007, p. 5), “a criminal justice system is a means that society uses to enforce the standards of conduct necessary to protect individuals and the community.” However, “a plea agreement may bind the defendant to do more than just plead guilty, like the defendant may be required to cooperate with the prosecutor in another case,” (Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 11e, 1998). A triumphant agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant involves the defendant agreeing to plead guilty in absence of a trial and the prosecutor promises to dismiss some charges that will result in a favorable judgment. According to Dervan (2011), the role of plea bargain may be explained using administrative theory and shadow-of-trial theory.

In the administrative theory of plea bargaining, the judicial system seeks to reduce the number of cases as much as possible to manageable levels for ease of administration (Dervan, 2011). In this case, some complex cases are dealt with fast, thus saving time, resources and protecting the community.

In shadow-of-trial theory, the strength and weakness of the evidence in a case and probable sentence following a trial are put into consideration (Bibas, 2004). In this case, the prosecutor may find it worthy to convince the accused to plead guilty when the evidence available is not substantial to support a full trial. However, there is a likelihood of misuse of this approach, as some ‘innocent’ defendants may be influenced to plead guilty. Another importance of the plea bargain is that it benefits the attorneys and defendants when cases are tackled fast, thus a defendant is in a position to know about his punishment compared to waiting for an uncertain judge’s verdict.

The primary reason why prosecutors opt for plea bargaining is the benefit the state gains such as an easier conviction for criminals, hence saving on time and resources required in a trial. However, plea bargaining benefits prosecutors by enabling them to earn their fee fast and concentrate on other cases, by avoiding workloads of preparing cases for trial; and influencing their ratings by reporting seemingly impressive conviction rates (Dervan, 2011). The judges also save time on deciding which sentence to impose on a criminal defendant. Therefore, plea bargaining proves to be an efficient tool needed in a courtroom, since it is of assistance to all (Cole, 2007, p. 240) and is efficient in saving time for other highly prioritized cases.

The Process of Plea Bargaining

According to McCoy (1993, p. 50), a plea bargain takes place after a defendant is arrested for a crime or several crimes. In the United States, plea bargaining starts with the prosecutor having to convince the defendant that he should agree to the plea bargain by pleading guilty. This acts as a green light that the defendant will not face trial, which could otherwise be uncertain and it could lead to severe punishment. The judges are never involved in the plea bargain agreement; this agreement involves the prosecutor and the accused defendant. The accused is free to accept or not to accept the plea. On acceptance, the accused pleads guilty to charges and a lighter judgment is passed. The bargaining process depends on the type of case and the defendant. The plea bargain process takes time, since the prosecutor has to explain to the defendant the requirements and the possible outcome of the plea bargain or if the defendant chooses to go to trial, (McCoy, 1993, p. 51). However, plea bargaining varies in various countries.

The Legal and Ethical Concerns for the Victim, Defendant and the Criminal Justice System as a result of Plea Bargains

Although plea bargaining has been found to be an important tool in the judicial system, various ethical issues have arisen from its application. Primarily, the interests of the victim may be overlooked when a compromise is reached between the prosecution and the defendant, while in some cases, the judiciary may deny an ‘innocent’ person the right to defend him/herself by making them plead guilty for crimes they never committed (Langer, 2006). The criminal justice system should ensure that plea bargaining enhances citizens’ safety and not only help criminals serve short term sentences who are later released to society. In most cases, plea bargaining is seen to act as a shortcut to justice. In cases where the defendant has committed a serious crime, plea bargaining gives way to an easy sentence, hence affecting the victim that was negatively affected by the crime. In this case, the relevance of the judicial process becomes questionable, as the interest of the victim is not served adequately (Kellough and Wortley, 2002).

The ethical rights of the defendant may also be abused especially given that, since prosecutors charge based on each case, they feel that they have an obligation to always win, no matter the cost. Therefore, they even overcharge to reduce the original charges of the defendant and save them the uncertainty of a trial – this is basically unethical. In some cases, where the prosecution feels that the defendant facing trial is bound to be acquitted, it may conceal the weaknesses of the evidence and influence the defendant to plead guilty, thus invalidating the relevance of the shadow-of-trial theory (Howe, 2005). Another critic that faces the criminal justice system is the fact that a prosecutor adds irrelevant charges on a defendant so that he can ask for a plea bargain and supposedly avoid trial. However, the added charges are meant to convince the defendant to opt for the plea bargain, which is an extra gain for the prosecutor because he may overcharge his client. Moreover, in cases of rape and murder, a prosecutor cannot propose a plea bargain to the defendant since he deserves to adhere to the appropriate punishment for the crime. This is considered ethical for the criminal justice system and fair to the victim or the victim’s family affected by such a crime. Moreover, the defense attorneys may abuse the relevance of plea bargaining by putting their economic gain before the interests of their clients. This is due to the fact that attorneys are paid in advance and may tend to deceive their clients to plead guilty with an aim of shortening the process so that they may proceed to other business for their own personal financial gain.

According to Cole (2007, p. 5), “a criminal justice system is a means that society uses to enforce the standards of conduct necessary to protect individuals and the community.” Nevertheless, the criminal justice system is not 100% effective because, by encouraging plea-bargaining, criminals don not receive adequate punishment that matches their crime. Therefore, when a defendant serves his short time in prison or perhaps exempts him jai term, there is a possibility that he bends the law once more, as his punishment was not adequate.

Nevertheless, despite criticism on plea bargaining, the fact that a lot of funds are required to hire more judge, create more courtrooms, and hire more court employees shows that plea bargaining is important in most cases. The fact is that, regardless of how beneficial the plea bargain is to the prosecutor, the judges, and the defendant, the victim involved in this case will disagree that the criminal justice system is fair.

Relevance of Plea Bargaining to Modern Society

A society benefits from plea bargaining because it is spared on costs that could have been involved in a trial if the defendant did not agree to the plea bargaining. The fact that less cost is involved and the defendant receives punishment is fair. Despite the fact that the punishment based on a plea bargain is less severe compared to judgment after a trial, the criminal is placed under supervision, thus limiting the defendant’s freedom. This is a relief to the society incase they are worried that a thief may be free to commit another crime.

Secondly, crimes such as trespassing without an intention to commit any crime can be solved fast by avoiding trials, hence avoiding congestion in prisons. The main purpose of a criminal serving time in prison is to prevent crime from spreading. However, if punishment is ineffective, it cannot curb a certain problem. The criminal justice system should ensure that criminals serve their legal term and abide to the laws of a country (Marchese, 2007). Nevertheless, the society’s safety is the main concern; therefore, if the reduced sentence can change an offender’s values and behaviors, then it is not worth engaging in long sessions of trials.


An appropriate plea bargaining should start at the time when the defendant is charged and faces a court sentence. Hence, at that point, he should be in a position to explain how his reduced sentence can be of importance to the society. The defendant should then explain to the court how his/her incarceration period would yield to behavioral change and abide by the law of his country. It is evident that plea bargains are a short cut to justice, since most offenders learn little on positive living from their reduced sentences (Merchese, 2007). However, plea bargaining is important on saving on costs and services compared to trials. The defendants are also able to receive fair and reduced judgment on their charges. Though unethical, Prosecutors also benefit from the high fees they charge on the plea bargaining.


Bibas, S. (2004). Plea Bargaining outside the Shadow of Trial. Harvard Law Review, Vol. 117, No. 8.

Cole, G. and Smith, C. (2007). Criminal Justice in America. Fifth edition. OH: Cengage Learning publisher.

Dervan, L. E. (2011). The Surprising Lessons from Plea Bargaining in the Shadow of Terror. Georgia State University Law Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, p. 239.

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(e). (1998). Criminal Resource Manual 625. Web.

Fisher, G. (2004). Plea bargaining’s triumph: a history of plea bargaining in America. NY: Stanford University Press publisher.

Howe, S. (2005). The Value of Plea Bargaining. Oklahoma Law Review, Vol. 58.

Kellough, G. and Wortley, S. (2002). Remand for Plea: Bail Decisions and Plea Bargaining as Commensurate Decisions. British Journal of Criminology, Volume 42, Issue 1, Pp. 186-210.

Langer, M. (2006). Rethinking Plea Bargaining: The practice and Reform of Prosecutorial Adjudication in American Criminal Procedure. American Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 33, pp. 223.

McCoy, C. (1993). Politics and plea bargaining: victims’ rights in California. PA: University of Pennsylvania Press publisher.

Merchese, J. (2007). Starting the re-entry process at the beginning. Corrections Today, Vol. 69. OH: Cengage Learning publishers.

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