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The reasons why plea agreements are so popular

Florida residents may be surprised to learn that the overwhelming majority of criminal cases are settled by negotiated plea agreements. While crime dramas on television generally culminate with a dramatic trial, less than 10 percent of criminal cases in the real world are heard by a jury. Plea agreements must be accepted by the defendant, prosecutor and judge before they can go into effect, and all of these parties may have good reasons to eschew a trial.

Prosecutors often encourage defendants to agree to a plea agreement by offering to reduce the charges against them or promising to recommend a lighter sentence. A plea deal also allows defendants who have retained private counsel to avoid the legal costs associated with mounting a criminal defense strategy. Prosecutors work under heavy caseloads, and losing in court can have a negative impact on their careers. This means that prosecutors will sometimes be willing to accept a negotiated plea even when the evidence in a criminal case is compelling.

Prosecutors may also offer a plea agreement in return for testimony against a co-defendant. This provides the prosecutor with one guaranteed positive outcome as well as evidence against a co-defendant that a jury could find convincing. Judges generally look favorably on plea deals when their dockets are crowded and the case in question seems straightforward.

While criminal defense attorneys may recommend a plea agreement when the evidence against their client is strong, they could rebuff a prosecutor's plea offer or seek a more favorable arrangement for their client when the facts of the case are not as clear. Criminal charges must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and this may present a challenge for prosecutors when their evidence is largely circumstantial or their case relies heavily on accomplice testimony. A defense attorney may also recommend against a plea agreement in cases where a client's constitutional rights may have been violated by law enforcement.

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