More than 90 percent of criminal cases settled by plea agreement

Some Illinois residents are angered when they read about individuals who have caused fatal accidents receiving what appear to be extremely light sentences after entering into a plea agreement, but experts say that the criminal justice system would grind to a halt in a matter of days if every case went to trial. Plea bargains settle more than 90 percent of criminal cases in the United States, and the reason that they sometimes seem excessively lenient is because proving a criminal charge beyond reasonable doubt is difficult for prosecutors and defendants must be given a good reason to plead guilty.

Plea agreements generally involve a defendant entering a guilty plea in return for a reduced charge or a more lenient sentence. The process usually begins with prosecutors lauding the strengths of their cases and the compelling nature of their evidence followed by criminal defense attorneys pointing out weaknesses or contradictions in the case or procedural missteps made by the police.

However, plea agreements are not without their critics, and many judges and legal experts feel that the current system places too much power in the hands of prosecutors. They say that harsh mandatory sentencing laws are sometimes used by prosecutors to coerce innocent defendants into admitting guilt because they fear decades in prison if they are unable to prevail in court.

The career prospects of prosecutors hinge largely on how many of their cases result in a conviction. Experienced criminal defense attorneys will likely be aware of this, and they could point out how challenging it can be to convince 12 jurors of a defendant's guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. Defense attorneys may recommend a plea agreement to their clients when the evidence against them is compelling, but they could also advise against a negotiated plea deal if the evidence is unlikely to withstand close scrutiny or the prosecutor's offer is unacceptable.

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