Anyone accused of a criminal offense theoretically has the right to defend themselves. In fact, this right is so crucial to the American justice system that the state will provide defendants with an attorney in a situation where an accused individual cannot afford their own lawyer.
In addition to being able to defend yourself, the right to a trial by jury is important to the overall fairness of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, many people end up giving up their right to a jury trial because they worry so much about criminal consequences.
Accepting a plea bargain can help you avoid worst-case outcomes. However, there are some significant costs that come with accepting a plea bargain.
There is often no promise about the penalties you face
Unless you work out a thorough deal that includes specific restrictions on sentencing, you could accept a plea deal hoping to avoid jail, only to wind up getting sentenced to the maximum penalty possible. Judges often still have total authority over sentencing decisions after a plea deal, which might mean that you face the same severe penalties.
People will probably assume you are guilty of the more serious offense
It is a standard practice for prosecutors to bring the most severe charges possible against a defendant, sometimes bringing multiple charges because of one criminal issue. The severity of the potential penalties may be enough to make you feel like pleading guilty is necessary, especially if the plea deal decreases the charge.
Unfortunately, some people will still assume that you were guilty of the original, more serious offense if you accept a plea deal. That could have long-term repercussions for your education and professional future even if you have always maintained your innocence.
You probably can’t have the blemish removed from your record
Some people who avoid future run-ins with the criminal justice system can eventually ask to have their record sealed or expunged. Unfortunately, a guilty plea often makes it much harder, if not impossible, to ask the state to seal your record or expunge them.
Before you enter a guilty plea out of fear of the consequences of going to trial, you might want to analyze the situation carefully to determine what criminal defense strategies are available.