What are they? In short, it is an agreement made to settle a criminal case. The vast majority of criminal charges are resolved by a plea agreement without going to trial.
Why is that? For the defendant, the person charged with the crime, trials are risky and stressful; if a deal can be made where the consequences are known and manageable, that is usually better than rolling the dice with a jury that will decide your guilt and if they find you guilty, a judge who will decide your punishment, whether you go to jail or prison and for how long.
For a defense attorney, trials are exciting and intense and provide a chance to practice your skills at the highest level when the stakes are often at their highest. The times that I have waited for a verdict to be read are the most exciting moments of my career. Everything rides on whether the clerk reads two words, ‘not guilty’, or one word, ‘guilty’. Fortunately, the last three trials that I have done ender with a ‘not guilty’ verdict, but my client did not know that it would turn out that way until the very end.
The tension is gut wrenching for me and even tougher for the client standing next to me. If the verdict goes south, they may be heading from the courtroom right to prison for a long time. If a deal can be made where the client stays out of prison, can manage the consequences, that is usually more appealing than hoping for a good verdict from the jury.
The next time you wonder why someone you know or heard about in the media, took a plea bargain, imagine what it would be like to have your entire future riding on the outcome of a trial. If you would not want to take that type of gamble, you would be looking for a plea bargain too.