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Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 01:57 pm
When a defendant is charged with a federal crime, their defense attorney will often try to negotiate a plea agreement with the prosecutor rather than going to trial. Plea agreements allow defendants to plead guilty in exchange for some kind of concession from the prosecution, such as a lesser charge or a more lenient sentence recommendation. Negotiating a favorable plea deal is a key part of a federal defense attorney’s job.
Plea bargains are very common in the federal criminal justice system—over 90% of federal criminal cases get resolved through a guilty plea rather than a trial. There are good reasons for this on both sides:
In short, plea agreements allow both sides to control the outcome rather than leaving it up to a jury.
When negotiating a plea agreement, the defense attorney looks for leverage to get the prosecutor to offer concessions. Different types of leverage can include:
A defense attorney analyzes the case to identify where the most leverage exists and uses that to negotiate for something beneficial in exchange for a guilty plea. Common types of plea agreement terms include:
The plea offer has to provide enough benefit to convince the defendant to give up their right to trial. But the prosecutor still has to feel like they’re getting a just outcome that protects public safety.
In negotiating a plea deal, some strategies federal defense attorneys commonly use include:
There are pros and cons to each approach depending on the situation. Experienced federal defense lawyers adapt their strategy case-by-case.
Defense attorneys have an ethical obligation to try to get the best deal possible for their client. However, legal and ethics rules still place some limits on plea negotiations:
Unethical conduct in plea bargaining can lead to sanctions for the attorney or the deal being rejected by the court. Most defense lawyers take great care to negotiate zealously but honestly.
Plea negotiations are a critical phase of the criminal justice process. The agreements reached determine whether defendants get locked up and for how long. Skillful bargaining by defense counsel makes a huge difference in achieving just outcomes for their clients. That’s why understanding how federal plea agreements work is so important for anyone facing criminal prosecution.
With liberty and justice at stake, federal defense attorneys take their role as negotiators very seriously. Their ability to effectively argue their client’s case and secure the most favorable terms possible can change lives.
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