Plea Bargaining for Your Life

By Gesse, Michelle | USA TODAY, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Plea Bargaining for Your Life


Gesse, Michelle, USA TODAY


IMAGINE THAT YOU are facing the most brutal challenge of your life. It is damaging your peace of mind, relationships, productivity, finances, and even physical health--with no end in sight. Then, you are told that you can make the ordeal end. All you have to do is tell one little lie, albeit one that goes against your core values and that may haunt you for the rest of your life. Would you do it?

This is exactly the dilemma that many Americans face when falsely accused of committing a crime. Plunged into the confusing and frightening maze that is the U.S. criminal justice system, these individuals often are pressured to admit their "guilt" and accept a plea bargain.

At first glance, it may be difficult to understand why an innocent person would accept a plea bargain for a crime he or she did not commit, but the unfortunate truth is, the criminal justice system does not always resemble what you see on TV. In practice, you are not treated as though you are innocent until proven guilty, and a very heavy burden--emotional, financial, and otherwise--is placed on the accused. Very quickly, seemingly black-and-white decisions like whether to accept a plea bargain become less clear-cut.

I speak from experience. On April 5, 2009, a dinner party guest falsely accused my husband Steven of threatening him with a gun. Seven agonizing months later, he finally was acquitted, but not before we spent a small fortune proving his innocence. As a result of this ordeal, I now believe that there are many innocent people who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit because they did not know how to navigate the justice system, were not given good advice, and were pressured into accepting a plea bargain--or independently decided that accepting one was their best option.

It is crucial to be prepared for the possibility of being falsely accused of a clime. Here are six things you should take into account when thinking about plea bargains:

Know what a plea bargain is. It is likely you have heard of a plea bargain before, but have you ever stopped to consider what it really means? In essence, you--the accused--admit that you are guilty in return for a reduced sentence. You do not have to go through the ordeal of a trial, but you will receive a sentence determined by a judge. (In some cases, the severity of the sentence comes as a nasty surprise to individuals who have been led to believe something else entirely before accepting the plea bargain.)

If you ever have been accused of a crime (whether you are innocent or not), you can expect to be offered a plea bargain at some point. Steven was offered one, but we had no indication of what the sentence might be if he accepted. It could have involved some jail time, monitored probation, or community service. Plea bargains also may include conditions like a requirement to undergo regular alcohol testing, or limits on your travel. Also, know that accepting a plea bargain means that you will have a criminal record. If you have pleaded guilty to a felony, you will have to live your life with all of the limitations that any convicted felon faces.

Understand how the system works. The criminal justice system in the U.S. is a "flow system." In other words, due to the high volume of cases it must deal with, the system's goal is to dispose of as many cases as quickly as possible. That is where negotiating plea bargains comes in--they are the quickest and least expensive way for the system and you to end the process.

From the perspective of the "system," plea bargains have a lot of advantages: they do not tie up the judicial system with a trial; allow the District Attorney's office to move on to another case; enhance the prosecutor's conviction rate; and do not require the additional services of an appointed public defender if the accused needs one--and, most often, the plea bargain strategy works. …

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