KOSCIUSKO COUNTY — Plea agreements or plea bargaining are becoming prevalent in criminal court cases. In fact it is estimated 90 percent of criminal cases are resolved through negotiated plea bargains. This is especially true in cases of sexual related crimes and crimes involving deaths.
Imagine being the victim of a sex crime, or a surviving family member of a crime that resulted in the death of a loved one. The trauma of the crime or death is being lived with daily. Because of a potential pending trial, the victim or family cannot put it behind them and move on. If it goes to trial, testimony regarding the events, photographs — sometimes graphic — may be shown in open court. The victim and/or family member has to relive the events, maybe see or hear things they will never forget.
“In some cases the plea agreement is better,” said Dan Hampton, Kosciusko County Prosecutor. “The family doesn’t have to go through and relive the crime,” he said noting that is a really important factor. “You also get closure quicker.” This is helpful for the victims. Additionally Hampton noted plea agreements take up less court time.
What are plea agreements?
According to the American Bar Association plea bargaining is prevalent for practical reasons: Defendants avoid the time and cost of defending themselves at trial, the risk of harsher punishment and the publicity a trial could involve. The prosecution saves the time and expense of a lengthy trial, both sides are spared the uncertainty of going to trial and the court system is saved the burden of conducting a trial on every crime charged.
Sometimes the plea agreements are offered by the defense, sometimes the prosecution. The result, however, is both sides must agree before it can be presented to the court. Normally the agreement includes the terms of incarceration for the defendant. This may be left to the judge’s discretion, but not to exceed a specific length of time, or a range of time is suggested.
It is not unusual when plea agreements are presented, the judge takes the matter under advisement. The judge does not have to accept the agreement, but it is rare. Once accepted, the judge is bound by the agreement, to some extent. That extent is the executed time in jail noted in the agreement. The judge is free to add additional time to the sentence, but served on probation.
There are pros and cons to plea agreements. The defendant can avoid a more serious charge, have fewer charges against them and provide some security in the terms of sentencing. In a trial, especially a jury trial, everything is uncertain. However, those who take a plea, miss the opportunity to be found not-guilty in a trial, waives opportunities to examine or challenge evidence against them. It is also more difficult to appeal, than a trial, because the plea was entered voluntarily, and the defendant admits to the charges they are pleading guilty to.
There are times where the prosecution will discuss the proposed plea with the victims or the deceased victim’s family. An acceptance by the prosecution of a plea may be based on the wishes of the victims, after all the facts have been presented to them.
The plea agreements are confidential and kept between the defendant and prosecution, until the matter is brought before the courts. Then the agreement becomes public information.