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The role judges play in the plea bargaining process

On Behalf of | Aug 18, 2021 | Criminal Law

The overwhelming majority of criminal prosecutions in Ohio and around the country are settled by plea agreements rather than juries. Individuals accused of committing crimes in the United States are presumed innocent and have a right to confront all of the witnesses against them in a court of law and before a jury of their peers, but almost all of them choose instead to plead guilty in return for either sentencing or charging concessions.

The judge’s role

Plea negotiations are conducted between prosecutors and defendants or their criminal defense attorneys, but judges have the final say. Judges generally encourage and accept plea agreements because they prevent long and expensive trials and keep the wheels of justice turning, but they may reject the terms presented if they determine that the offender is being treated too harshly or too leniently. This is very rare, but it does occasionally happen.

Plea deals must follow the law

In a criminal trial, the prosecutor represents the people, the defense attorney represents the defendant and the judge watches over proceedings and ensures that the law is followed. Judges make decisions and rulings based on how they interpret the U.S. Constitution, statutes and case law, and they may reject plea agreements that they deem to be illegal. This happened in 1997 when New York lawmakers reintroduced the death penalty. In the first capital case following the law’s passage, the defendant chose to plead guilty to avoid the death sentence. The judge rejected the plea deal because the law contained language that said individuals who plead guilty could not be sentenced to death. The judge felt that this language was unconstitutional because it punished defendants for maintaining their innocence and exercising their right to a jury trial.

Negotiating on behalf of the accused

When people accused of breaking the law choose an attorney to advocate on their behalf, they would be wise to look for a lawyer who has a track record of success at the negotiating table as this is where their case is likely to be resolved. However, they should also seek a lawyer who has rejected plea offers and argued the facts in court when the terms presented were unfair.