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Think twice before copping that plea

If you are awaiting trial on charges on which you were arrested, at some point in the proceedings, it's likely that you will be offered a plea bargain. Whether you decide to accept the prosecution's offer is up to you. However, your decision should be based on facts and not fears.

Plea bargains are a necessary part of the criminal justice system. If every case played out in court, the criminal justice system would grind to a screeching halt, bogged down by the weight of all the pending trials. There is no arguing that plea bargains play a major role in moving justice along. But there are big problems with some plea bargains as well.

Innocent people pressured to cop pleas

Public defenders often urge their clients to accept plea bargains because it lightens their case loads immensely. But that shouldn't matter to a defendant whose life, liberty and rights are at stake.

Public defenders do the best with what they have, which admittedly is not usually a lot. Overworked and underpaid in most circumstances, it's easy to see why they try to resolve many cases with pleas. But if you are truly innocent, why should you plead guilty to a crime you never committed?

There are exceptions

Sometimes, your criminal defense attorney will review the evidence against you and recommend a plea bargain simply because it is highly likely that a judge or jury will find you guilty at trial. In the best case scenario, you may be able to plead "no contest," or nolo contendere, as it is sometimes known, to a lesser charge or the original charge.

That differs from a guilty plea in that you do not admit guilt. However, you agree not to contest the charge and accept the consequences of the plea, which are the same as for a guilty plea. No contest pleas are not automatic. They are considered a privilege and require the court's consent.

Understand your rights before pleading

When you accept a plea bargain, you must understand that you waive your rights of appeal to the charge. It will go on your criminal record. You will face sentencing on the charges and perhaps have to serve some time.

The decision of whether to accept a plea bargain can be complex and far-reaching. It's always prudent to discuss your decision thoroughly with your counsel of record to make sure that you make the wisest choice for your individual circumstances.

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