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Defending crime in Wisconsin: What is a plea bargain?

There is some uncertainty involved in proceeding to trial regardless of what type of case is at hand. A criminal conviction in Wisconsin can have long-term consequences that affect not only a defendant, but also his or her family, friends and co-workers. Allegations of offenses such as sex crimes, drug charges and domestic assault, regardless of the presumption of innocence everyone is supposed to be afforded, can devastate one's career through publicity alone. A conviction is life-altering.

Defendants may be able to avoid some of these ramifications through a court process called plea bargaining. Simply put, a plea bargain is an agreement between defendants and prosecutors that negates the need for a full-blown trial. It can be a sound strategy for all concerned, and has become common practice in many jurisdictions. Either side can start the negotiations with a proposal. Both sides must agree explicitly on the eventual terms.

An agreement may minimize the penalties faced by the accused by reducing the degree or number of charges. Another option might be pleading guilty as charged, but leniency is recommended by the prosecution. A judge doesn't have to follow the recommendation, however. Some plea bargains require court approval; others do not. Defendants enjoy limited protection from publicity as the negotiations are generally private. There are some instances when victims might have the right to contribute information to the process.

Saving the time and expense of a lengthy trial and eliminating the uncertainty are an advantage to both sides. Overall, a court benefits because the burden of conducting a trial on every crime charged is lifted.

Source: American Bar Association, "How Courts Work" accessed Jan. 22, 2015

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