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.