What is a plea negotiation?

After a criminal complaint has been filed against a defendant, a prosecutor representing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and an attorney representing the defendant begin communicating over the terms of the defendant’s pending criminal case. A criminal complaint outlines the criminal charges against the defendant. This process of communication is referred to as plea negotiation or plea bargaining and concerns the content of the criminal complaint and the sentencing guidelines that would typically apply. Subject to negotiation are the defendant’s plea, alterations to the original charges, and the resultant sentencing and punishment to be recommended to the court.

Similar to negotiations in the civil context, communications between opposing sides revolve around terms with which each party must agree. In a criminal case, however, the defendant brings to the table his or her ability to submit a plea other than “not guilty,” and effectively save the cost, time, and burden associated with a criminal trial. The prosecutor brings to the table the ability to reduce or drop charges, and recommend a diversion program, other alternative or shorter sentence to the judge.

According to the American Bar Association, the process of plea bargaining is private except in circumstances where victims are authorized by law to participate in the negotiation process. “Usually the details of a plea bargain aren’t known publicly until announced in court.”

The pleas available to a defendant are usually a guilty plea, a plea of no contest, and at times, an Alford plea. A guilty plea admits to the charges as agreed during the plea negotiation. A plea of no contest, which is an admission of guilty, is a way the defendant can say to the court that he or she does not have a desire to litigate over the criminal charges and is willing to accept the prosecution’s recommendations as agreed. An Alford plea is different, however, because the defendant maintains his or her innocence but admits that the prosecution has enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant could be convicted of the charges.